The District, Maryland and Northern Virginia have agreed to give Metro the extra money it has requested for its next budget, granting the transit agency a bit of financial breathing room as it works to improve safety and reliability.
The key event came Wednesday, when Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) presented a budget that includes a $42 million increase in the state’s subsidy for Metro operations for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
Northern Virginia officials had said they viewed Metro’s request as reasonable, and the District’s support was never in doubt; Virginia was asked to increase its subsidy by nearly $40 million, the District by nearly $50 million.
The three jurisdictions’ commitments mean that Metro can count on getting the extra money that General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld sought in his $1.8 billion operating budget presented in October.
Hogan authorized the increase without fanfare even though the Maryland transportation budget is tight, and he prefers to spend money on roads that serve his political base in rural and outer suburban communities.
Analysts said Hogan may have acted partly to avoid a politically damaging battle with the Democratic-controlled General Assembly, where he risked being portrayed as an enemy of Metro.
Democrats in the legislature said they plan to push Hogan to raise Maryland’s contribution even more, to allow Metro to avoid planned fare hikes and service cuts.
But Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn cautioned the state wouldn’t go beyond what Metro has sought.
“Governor Hogan and Secretary Rahn have been very clear about how they feel about these types of requests,” Rahn spokeswoman Erin Henson said.
Northern Virginia officials also said they would oppose increasing the subsidy beyond what Metro requested.
In addition, Rahn and Virginia officials have warned they would not necessarily boost the subsidy as much as Metro wants in future years, when the transit agency projects its needs will continue to rise.
But the increased subsidy this year relieves some pressure on the agency at a critical time: Metro needs to complete its SafeTrack maintenance program and set up a federally mandated safety commission to provide oversight.
Both the Maryland and Virginia general assemblies are expected to approve bills to create the safety body, and they are considering related legislation as well. The D.C. Council has already approved the commission. All must approve identical legislation.
Metro will finalize next year’s budget this spring. In addition to asking for a 15 percent increase in the jurisdictions’ subsidy, Wiedefeld proposed to eliminate 1,000 jobs, raise rail and bus fares, trim rail service and eliminate bus routes.
In response, Metro’s unions have held two town hall meetings in which riders and transit advocates have said such measures would reduce ridership and cost the agency needed revenue.
Maryland Dels. Marc A. Korman and Kumar P. Barve, both Montgomery Democrats, called on Hogan to increase the state’s subsidy — and persuade the District and Virginia to do the same — to reduce the negative impact on riders.
Korman said that with Maryland’s agreement to the $42 million increase, “I hope the conversation can shift to what else Maryland can do to prevent harm to riders.”
But the Democrats have little leverage to force Hogan’s hand. Maryland governors have exceptionally strong power over the budget. Typically the General Assembly can only cut the governor’s spending requests, not increase them.
Elsewhere in the region, the District would support increasing the subsidy, according to Metro Board Chairman Jack Evans. He also chairs the D.C. Council’s finance committee as a member representing Ward 2.
“D.C. would be on board,” Evans (D) said.
But Northern Virginia would not go along, according to Fairfax County Supervisor Jeffrey C. McKay (D-Lee). He also chairs the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission, which is charged with representing Virginia’s interests and handling its funding of Metro.
Instead, Northern Virginia is warning Metro that although it plans to increase its contribution for next year as requested, it wants to see significant improvements in management and safety before considering increases in succeeding years.
Metro has projected that it will need an extra $1 billion over the next three years from the three jurisdictions, beyond what they have been contributing for operations and what Metro previously projected it would need for capital investments such as new rail cars and track repairs. The estimates have alarmed local governments, which say they can’t afford it.
“Northern Virginia is troubled by the rate of increase in jurisdictional subsidies after [fiscal year 2018] as proposed in the capital and operating budgets,” McKay said in a Jan. 6 letter to Wiedefeld.
He said that Metro’s financial need “directly competes with parks, schools, public safety and other municipal priorities.”
Meanwhile, in the Maryland and Virginia general assemblies, work proceeds on setting up the safety commission even though it is accepted that the body won’t be formed by a Feb. 9 deadline set by former transportation secretary Anthony Foxx.
It is unclear clear whether secretary-designate Elaine Chao will penalize the three jurisdictions by withholding federal transit funds as Foxx threatened.
The commission will be empowered to adopt and enforce Metro safety rules, conduct inspections, impose fines and take other steps to ensure safety.
In a related development in Maryland, Korman filed a bill Friday to require that at least one of Maryland’s two voting members of the commission come from Montgomery or Prince George’s County — the two Maryland jurisdictions served by Metro. The measure is expected to pass.
In Virginia, Del. J. Randall Minchew (R-Loudoun) filed a more controversial bill designed to weaken union protections in the Metro compact, which spells out how the transit agency is governed and financed.
Minchew’s bill proposes to eliminate the requirement that an arbitrator settle labor disputes. Because the bill would have the force of law, it would go further than a similar resolution filed earlier by Del. James M. LeMunyon (R-Fairfax).
Neither the bill nor the resolution would have any effect on the compact unless Maryland and the District went along, and Congress then approved the agreement.
Minchew said the aim of his bill is to encourage debate about Metro’s management and what he sees as the agency’s excessive labor costs. He said he would not ask lawmakers to approve his legislation as a condition of supporting the safety commission, as some Metro supporters have feared.
“There will be no hostage taking, but I do want to force a discussion,” Minchew said.