Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn has raised new objections to the Metro reform plan proposed by former U.S. transportation secretary Ray LaHood, adding to doubts about whether it will be accepted.
Rahn questioned whether a smaller “reform board” proposed by LaHood would make a difference, because it would not have legal power to alter labor agreements or take other significant steps to reduce Metro’s costs.
He also is skeptical that Metro needs as much money over the long term as LaHood and General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld have requested. Rahn wants to see a more detailed, “bottom up” analysis of Metro’s needs — and possible savings — to justify their request for an additional $500 million a year for at least the next 10 years.
Such long-range dollar figures “tend to be rough estimates” that aren’t necessarily justified, Rahn said. Although he supports Wiedefeld, “I just don’t believe those kinds of numbers have all the spices cooked into them,” he said.
Rahn’s comments provide significant new details about Maryland’s concerns about the LaHood study, which has not been released publicly but was obtained by The Washington Post this month. His criticisms go beyond legal objections that Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) has raised about LaHood’s proposal to scrap the existing 16-member Metro board and replace it with a temporary five-member “reform” board.
Rahn also rejected calls by LaHood, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) and D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) for quick action to provide dedicated funding for Metro, such as through a new tax. Instead, he said the region should adopt the short-term funding plan proposed by his boss, Hogan, while it studies Metro’s financial situation more thoroughly.
Under Hogan’s plan, Maryland, Virginia, the District and the federal government would increase their contribution to Metro by $500 million apiece over four years.
“Four years should allow enough time for real numbers to be produced,” Rahn said, referring to Metro’s needs.
Maryland’s criticisms illustrate the breadth of disagreement over the plan among the jurisdictions responsible for Metro. McAuliffe, who recruited LaHood to do the study, has backed it, while Bowser has expressed conditional support. It’s unclear whether the federal government would support a funding increase — especially without significant changes in the agency’s governance and labor practices.
There also appears to be tension between McAuliffe and LaHood over the study, with each seeming to blame the other for it not having been officially released.
Asked when the report would be released to the public, McAuliffe spokesman Brian Coy responded, “Questions about the LaHood report should be directed to LaHood.”
But LaHood said he was “waiting to get word from Governor McAuliffe’s office when and how he wants to release it and how he wants me to be involved. . . . We’ve been in discussions with his office about it, but there’s been no finality.”
The Metro board’s chairman, Jack Evans, said earlier that he was stunned that the much-anticipated report appeared first in the press. “The way it was released is amateur hour,” Evans said. “I don’t think LaHood can argue with me on that. How did this happen?”
The delay is having practical impacts. U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao has declined to comment on the recommendations until the report is officially released.
The holdup also is delaying disclosure of a document prepared by LaHood’s law firm, DLA Piper, explaining how the reform board could be legally enacted. It will be made public only when the report is officially released, LaHood said.
Additionally, there are signs of tension in Maryland between Hogan and Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D) over the state’s position on the legality of the plan.
Frosh’s office suggested that Hogan may have been premature in saying the reforms recommended in the report could not be accomplished without revising Metro’s founding document.
Hogan has said he likes the idea of removing the Metro board and replacing it with a temporary reform panel, but it could not be done legally without amending the Metro compact. Revising the compact, which spells out how the agency is governed and financed, is a lengthy and cumbersome process that almost all parties would prefer to avoid.
According to Hogan spokesman Doug Mayer, Frosh’s office said that shrinking the board as LaHood proposes would require amending the compact. The governor’s counsel agreed and spoke with the legal team at DLA Piper, which didn’t change the counsel’s view.
Mayer provided a copy of a Nov. 15 email from Assistant Attorney General Christopher L. Fontaine saying the compact would have to be amended to change the composition of the board. The brief email referred to the section of the compact describing how it may be amended.
But Frosh spokeswoman Raquel Coombs said the attorney general “has not been asked for a formal opinion on this.” Instead, the day-to-day guidance in the Fontaine email is “the extent of the analysis that we’ve done,” she said.
Coombs noted that the Metro compact “states clearly how the board is to be comprised” — with eight voting members and eight alternates, divided evenly among Maryland, Virginia, the District and the federal government.
But LaHood says the five-member reform board could be created via a voluntary, temporary agreement, without violating the compact. McAuliffe and Bowser have said they agree with LaHood.
LaHood says the smaller board is necessary to pursue aggressive reforms of the transit system and bolster confidence in its governance. He has described the process of creating it in interviews but not in writing. Under LaHood’s plan, the current board would resign; Virginia, Maryland, the District and the federal government would each appoint one new member. Those four would then select a fifth person to be chairman.
The four parties would agree on a temporary basis to leave the remaining seats on the board unfilled. The compact says a quorum of the board is four members, including at least one each from Maryland, Virginia and the District. So a five-member board, in theory, would be legally empowered to act.
Rahn said the board should instead act now on its own to shrink from 16 to eight, for practical purposes, just by having the eight alternate members accept a reduced role. Alternates vote in committee meetings. They play an active role in full board meetings, although without voting.
Rahn also said the board should behave more like a corporate board and not involve itself so much in routine affairs.
“The issue, more than anything, is the board needs to behave more as a board and not as the day-to-day managers of the system, urging expansion, expenditures, operational changes,” Rahn said.
LaHood’s reform board would not be an improvement unless it obtains additional powers, he said.
“The union agreement, [labor] arbitration, all of these issues make it very difficult to actually impact the costs,” Rahn said. “I don’t know what a reform board is supposed to do without some super legal authority to make it happen.”