In a break with Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld, board Chairman Jack Evans says the agency should be pushing for $25 billion over 10 years to cover the system’s long-term needs, significantly more than the $15.5 billion the agency chief has requested.
Evans said the additional money could be used for projects such as a second Potomac River tunnel to relieve chronic congestion and a permanent fix for water infiltration problems that create repeated arcing incidents on the Red Line.
Wiedefeld says Metro needs $15.5 billion over 10 years, including $500 million in annual dedicated funding, to keep the system safe and reliable. But at a Metro board meeting Thursday, he outlined $9.5 billion in anticipated needs not covered in his proposal.
What’s more, Wiedefeld has proposed capping growth in the annual subsidies the District, Maryland and Virginia contribute to the agency at 3 percent. The growth is meant to cover merely the cost of inflation and does not include expenses such as the extra cost of operating phase 2 of the Silver Line or restoring late-night service.
Evans criticized Wiedefeld’s approach as shortsighted, saying it has allowed the region’s leaders to balk at committing to fully funding Metro’s needs.
“This will only keep us where we are right now, which is not a good place to be,” Evans said Sunday. “What the region does, what the elected leadership, the business [community does] — they will seize on the easiest approach. So when he put out the number ‘500,’ everybody seized on ‘500,’ which gets you to $15 billion — which gets you to where you are today. Nobody wants to be where we are today.”
Evans was unable to attend Thursday’s board meeting because he joined a regional delegation in Japan to explore the feasibility of a high-speed magnetic levitation passenger train from the District to New York City.
“We’re asking for the wrong number,” he said. “I think it was a mistake on behalf of the GM . . . to ask for the lower number.”
Evans favors seeking $650 million a year in dedicated funding that would be raised through a regionwide penny-per-dollar sales tax, as recommended by a technical panel of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments in April. But the plan faces numerous hurdles. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) opposes raising any taxes for Metro, and Prince George’s County officials also are wary of a new tax. In Virginia, a GOP-controlled legislature is likely to oppose a tax increase.
Metro did not directly respond to Evans’s comments but pointed to Wiedefeld’s comments at the board meeting, where he stressed that the $15.5 billion was for Metro’s most urgent safety needs.
Wiedefeld said the money was for "nonnegotiable" safety and core system upgrades, including power system enhancements allowing increased use of eight-car trains, rebuilding tracks that weren't part of SafeTrack, replacing deteriorated infrastructure and replacing legacy rail cars.
"These projects cannot be in jeopardy, because in my estimation these projects are keeping the system safe and reliable," Wiedefeld said. "This pretty much has to go forward." He also acknowledged that it might be the best the agency could hope for, given the political realities.
On Sunday, Metro board member Michael Goldman, who represents Maryland, applauded Wiedefeld’s presentation as realistic and balanced, though he did not criticize Evans for his stance.
Wiedefeld is “saying these projects are the projects that are needed and doable within a 10-year period and I can put firm numbers on,” Goldman said. “Those other projects, he doesn’t put firm numbers on or he doesn’t [see as] needed, or commit to, over a 10-year period.”
Hogan has proposed a short-term solution to Metro's financial woes: $2 billion over four years, split equally among the District, Maryland, Virginia and the federal government. A budget analysis prepared by Metro indicated the plan would cover the agency's capital needs for about three years. Hogan said his proposal would give the region time to come up with more permanent funding solutions for Metro.
Goldman said the long-term needs not addressed by Wiedefeld’s proposal could probably be covered by an eventual dedicated funding source — by borrowing against the pledged funding.
“The $500 million that’s raised really has a multiplier effect,” Goldman said. “If the dedicated funding stream is there and a project comes along that needs to be added to the process . . . there’s no reason why there can’t be an add-on.”
Goldman said last week that the prospect of securing dedicated funding over the next year was likely dead, given legislative calendars in Virginia and Maryland, and the upcoming gubernatorial elections in Virginia in November and Maryland in fall 2018.
Evans, however, said there is little reason to believe the region will unite on a funding solution years from now, so Metro should make its best push now. “What’s going to change in the mentality of the region?” he said. “In my (nearly) 27 years in government — elected — in the District, the only thing that changes people is crisis. Otherwise they muddle through.”