Metro Board Chairman Jack Evans urged a federal takeover of the transit system Wednesday, instantly triggering a regionwide debate over what would be a drastic step to solve the agency’s financial and management problems.
Evans’s call for a federal control board with “extraordinary powers” to run Metro drew a surprisingly positive response from several leading elected officials and former Metro board members. Virginia’s transportation chief and the chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors were open to the idea.
D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) renewed her call for a regional sales tax or other reliable funding for Metro while leaving open the possibility of supporting a takeover.
But such a move would face major political obstacles. Many in Congress would resist using taxpayer funds to support the transit agency.
“I would be surprised if there’s any appetite in Congress to take on the responsibilities of a contemporary urban transit system,” said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), who is a strong supporter of Metro.
But Connolly didn’t completely shut the door to the possibility, either. He said he might consider it if Congress agreed to pick up a share of Metro’s operating costs, as the District, Maryland and Virginia do.
Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Oversight subcommittee on transportation and public assets, said he was lukewarm about a federal takeover but would consider one “if we don’t see continued progress.” He emphasized, however, that Metro would not be getting any operating funds from Congress.
“Absolutely not,” said Mica, who has been a critic of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. “It’s a very prosperous region. The local governments can certainly help.”
Supporters said that Congress might come around if a takeover were the only way to salvage a system that carries hundreds of thousands of federal workers and contractors each day.
Critics of the proposal said it was premature and unrealistic, or both.
“I don’t think the federal government is very good at running a business,” said Metro board member Michael Goldman, citing the challenges faced by Amtrak and the U.S. Postal Service.
He also expressed doubt that a federal takeover would come with an influx of cash.
“That’s just a pipe dream,” said Goldman, who represents Maryland.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) issued a brief comment that avoided taking an explicit stand. “As the governor has made extremely clear, making Metro as safe as possible and returning fiscal stability to the system have to be top priorities,” spokesman Doug Mayer said.
Evans’s proposal sparked interest because it appears to offer a simple — albeit radical — way to break up budgetary and administrative logjams that have left Metro in a dire state. The system has been losing riders and revenue as it struggles with chronic safety lapses, service disruptions and neglect of basic maintenance.
Evans, who also is a D.C. Council member, spoke in response to an editorial in The Washington Post on Wednesday saying it’s time to consider a federal takeover.
Evans said he supports the idea because the agency’s problems can be solved only by a body strong enough to raise money, dismiss employees, cancel union contracts and streamline management.
His recommendation is based in part on his experience with the federal control board that succeeded in rescuing the District from financial crisis in the 1990s.
“You have to have extraordinary powers — that’s the key,” he said. “You have to be able to negate contracts, fire people and restructure without outside interference.”
A control board also is necessary, he said, as a condition to tap federal funds to help cover Metro’s operating deficits, estimated at $290 million in the next fiscal year, and long-term investment needs, which run in the billions of dollars.
He noted that the District’s chief financial officer, Jeffrey S. DeWitt, estimates that Metro needs $12 billion to $18 billion in additional capital funds over the next 10 years to pay for system maintenance and upgrades.
“You bring in the federal infusion of money to fix this” with federal control, Evans said.
In particular, he hopes that the federal government would assume responsibility for Metro’s unfunded pension liability of $2.8 billion.
“When the feds took over the city, they took over the entire $10 billion unfunded pension liability,” Evans said. “That’s something the feds could do for Metro.”
In addition, he said, a control board could “change the entire personnel structure at Metro.”
It also could eliminate the system of binding arbitration of labor contracts. That could be a selling point for Republican lawmakers, who have objected to the practice.
“We have 13,000 employees who take up 70 percent of our budget,” Evans said. A control board would look at such issues as “Do we have too many people? Are the pensions and retirements too generous? You change all that, you get out of the binding-arbitration situation.”
Those comments drew a scathing response from Jackie Jeter, president of Metro’s largest union, who said Evans was engaging in “crazy talk.” Suggesting that federal intervention could allow for firings and for contracts to be negated was “terribly irresponsible,” Jeter said.
Evans said a control board might be a non-starter because of legal obstacles related to the WMATA Compact, the agency’s founding document that spells out how it is governed and funded.
But several experts said the compact would not prevent a takeover if the federal government, and all the compact signatories, agreed to support a control board.
A Metro spokeswoman said that General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld would not comment on the proposal. He is, instead, “focused on delivering safe and reliable service,” she said.
Tom Davis (R), the former U.S. House member from Virginia who wrote the legislation two decades ago that put a control board in charge of the District’s finances, said it would be possible to do the same for Metro. One way it could be accomplished: The federal government could offer Metro an infusion of cash in exchange for the establishment of an oversight board.
Evans, who has been board chairman for nine months, says it’s impossible to lead the 16-member board effectively for two reasons: It’s too large and members have split loyalties between the interests of the jurisdictions that selected them and Metro’s best interest.
“Most of the loyalties [of board members], I have found, are not to Metro but to the jurisdictions that chose them,” Evans said.
Political leaders and others open to a federal takeover also see it as a way to get around the cumbersome governing structure.
Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova (D), in supporting federal intervention, cited the jurisdictional discord that has already come to light in Metro’s budget discussions for the next fiscal year.
“You can have local governments veto a budget or hold a budget hostage for parochial interest,” she said. “I agree that something urgently needs to be done on the governance side,” she said.
Virginia Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne said the state would be “open to the idea” of a control board but that it’s “probably premature.”
“Certainly, governance is a big issue with all the different political pressures in every [jurisdiction] being different,” he said.
Metro board member Corbett Price, who represents the District, supported the proposal and praised Evans as “the only board chair I’ve seen to really show political courage and speak out as an advocate for the system.”
But former Metro board chairman Tom Downs said, “The answer has to be political accountability at the very top of the political food chain” — the governors of Maryland and Virginia and the mayor.
“The control board thing is such a dud of an idea, not because there’s a slim possibility that you could pull this off, but because it relieves the pressure about everything else,” Downs said. “The one-cent regional sales tax is the necessary thing to fix the dilemma about the predictable future of Metro, and the three people who can shepherd that through are the three executives.”
James C. Dinegar, president of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, said that Evans’s call was premature because there’s a plan in place to deal with Metro’s immediate problems.
“There’s a proposal to reduce the workforce further,” he said. “There are proposed, but not enacted, service cuts. There are proposed, but not enacted, fare increases. There are systemwide improvements being put in place . . . and now, we tell the federal government we can’t handle this? Now?
“I’m not sure that every time the region has a problem they get to run to Uncle Sam,” Dinegar said.
Christian Dorsey, a Metro board member representing Virginia, called the idea “half-baked.”
“The idea of a federal takeover sounds like it could solve all our problems, but I think there are plenty of details hidden in that simple phrase that would have to be unpacked before that becomes a solution,” Dorsey said.
Evans initially expressed pessimism that the control board proposal would get much backing.
Asked who supports the idea, besides him and The Post’s editorial page, he said: “Probably nobody. The region is resistant to change of any kind. Nobody wants to change anything, even as the house is burning down.”
Faiz Siddiqui contributed to this report.