Ten Maryland legislators are proposing a radical overhaul of Metro’s board and a flexible, equitably shared funding plan that would yield the $500 million in dedicated funding proposed by Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld.
In a 29-page Metro reform proposal released Monday, the lawmakers, who are from Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, call for significant governance and oversight changes, and separate, $170 million annual payments from Maryland, Virginia and the District to support Metro’s long-term needs. The funds would be put into a new “capital trust fund” that would allow for bonding, substantially increasing Metro’s long-term borrowing abilities.
The proposal does not lay out a specific funding mechanism, leaving it to each jurisdiction to determine how to come up with its share — an acknowledgment of the significant disagreements over how to support the troubled system’s financial needs.
“Our thinking is, here are some very serious governance and oversight changes that we think can make everyone feel a lot more comfortable that they’re not throwing good money after bad,” said Del. Erek L. Barron (D-Prince George’s), co-chairman of a work group in Annapolis dedicated to Metro issues.
Barron is one of the 10 lawmakers — all Democrats — who signed the plan.
The proposal is one of several floated in recent months by influential think tanks, business and labor groups, and regional officials to turn around the troubled system. But this plan, a copy of which was provided to The Washington Post, represents the most detailed and comprehensive proposal so far by lawmakers in any of the jurisdictions Metro serves.
“Metro must make sure riders, taxpayers, and other stakeholders understand where their money is going and what they are getting in return,” the plan reads. “Metro must be accountable to those that use it and pay for it, and not just be a faceless bureaucracy. Whatever reforms are adopted, an actual vision to achieve a system that works must be agreed to by all jurisdictions and management.”
Governance is at the center of the reforms proposed. The plan calls for a new, streamlined governing board that would consist of only the Maryland and Virginia transportation secretaries and the District’s director of transportation. Motions would pass with a two-vote threshold and there would be no jurisdictional veto, meaning dissent from one locality served could not alone sink a resolution, as is the case now.
The federal government would not have a formal vote, although it and local jurisdictions could appoint nonvoting members to represent them at board meetings, according to the proposal.
The current board structure, long criticized as unwieldy, calls for 16 members — eight voting and eight alternate — who represent the states and localities served by Metro and the federal government.
“When everyone is in charge, no one is in charge,” the Maryland proposal says.
On another critical issue — funding — the proposal is slightly more ambiguous, a tacit acknowledgment that the District, Maryland and Virginia have yet to find common ground on how to fund the system. District officials favor a regionwide sales tax, but Virginia Republicans have called such a proposal a nonstarter. A regional sales tax has gained some support in Montgomery. Prince George’s officials have not endorsed such a tax and worry that the labor reforms many of the various plans propose will adversely impact Metro’s workforce, a significant portion of whom reside in the county.
The lawmakers would prefer that Maryland’s $170 million of new funding for Metro come from the state’s Transportation Trust Fund, supported by fuel and titling taxes, among other sources. But that would face major political obstacles, as legislators outside of Montgomery and Prince George’s would object to shifting money from the trust fund to Metro, thus depleting funds available for roads, bridges and other projects outside the Washington suburbs. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) has flatly ruled out raising taxes on the entire state to pay for Metro.
In recognition of that political reality, the legislators’ proposal says the fresh money for Metro could instead come from new taxes to be levied only in Montgomery and Prince George’s if the “funding or the bond rating obtained [through the Trust Fund] were inadequate.” That alternative is in line with most other proposals aired in recent months, which call for raising taxes only in the District and in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs served by Metro.
Officials in Maryland consider the document a road map to potential legislation at the local, state and federal levels to turn Metro around. Some of the changes supported by state lawmakers would require reopening the agency’s 50-year-old compact — its governing document. Wiedefeld has not endorsed doing that but other officials have said may be necessary.
“It’s a bit of a first salvo to begin conversation, at least, on the Maryland side,” said an official involved in the discussions. It’s “the first set of discussion points to get us to where I think we need to be by the end of the year, and certainly by the first day of [the legislative] session in January,” said the official, who was not authorized to speak on the proposal in advance of its release and asked not to be named.
The official went on to say the proposal represents a starting point for discussions, “not a firm ‘our way or the highway.’ ”
Wiedefeld laid out his own reform plan for the system in April, calling for $15.5 billion over 10 years for capital needs, including $500 million in new, annual dedicated funding, and a slew of labor concessions from Metro’s unions. A technical panel of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments has said that Metro needs $650 million in annual dedicated funding and endorsed a regionwide 1 percent sales tax to raise it. The Council of Governments itself has not endorsed a specific funding proposal but approved a resolution last week supporting dedicated, bondable funding.
The Maryland plan eschews the calls of some officials in the region for labor reforms, instead favoring strengthened oversight through a beefed-up inspector general’s office. Virginia Republicans have said any increases in funding should be tied to labor concessions.
Maryland officials believe, however, that better oversight through the inspector general and a streamlined board are likely to be popular with Republicans. Under their proposal, the inspector general would be granted broader oversight authority, a longer term (seven years, rather than five) and a fixed percentage of the budget for the office’s needs. The inspector general would serve at the pleasure of the board and report directly to it but would operate independently. The inspector general would have unrestricted access to all Metro records and the authority to conduct investigations into criminal, civil and administrative matters, according to the proposal.
The proposal also calls for Metro to adopt a new strategic plan outlining long-term goals and to renew and revise such a plan every five years. It points to a 2005 Transportation Research Board report that found strategic planning “was instrumental in creating a new vision for the agency, or in helping to give the entire agency a sense of direction.”
The lawmakers also suggest an overhaul of Metro’s Riders’ Advisory Council, which has been criticized in recent years for waning influence on topics relevant to the system’s riders.
The plan says the council is crippled by an appointment process that “does not hold RAC members accountable to any one jurisdiction or local government, but ties them closely to Metro and makes them reliant on Metro’s bureaucracy.” The proposal calls for a council consisting of three committees, representing rail, bus and paratransit riders. Members would be appointed by the District and the jurisdictions served by Metro; the District’s mayor and state governors could each appoint a member representing businesses within a half-mile of a Metro station.
Del. Marc A. Korman (D-Montgomery) appeared to hint at the coming overhaul proposal after a Council of Governments meeting last week, where he named reforms to the RAC and a strategic plan as two issues to explore.
“I hope we’re on a road to dedicated funding by this time next year. But I also think dedicated funding alone is not the answer,” he said last week. “The problem with Metro is not just funding. Money helps. I want them to have dedicated funding, but there are other issues there with the management, with the governance, that need to be addressed.”
The legislators who signed on to the proposal were Sens. Joanne C. Benson (D-Prince George’s) and Brian J. Feldman (D-Montgomery) and Dels. Barron, Korman, David Moon (D-Montgomery), Andrew Platt (D-Montgomery), Jheanelle K. Wilkins (D-Montgomery), Jazz M. Lewis (D-Prince George’s), Carlo Sanchez (D-Prince George’s) and Jimmy Tarlau (D-Prince George’s).