Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld said Tuesday that Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan's four-year, $2 billion capital funding proposal would buy the region time to enact needed financial reforms, and despite its shortcomings may be the most realistic path to keeping the system afloat in the short term.
In a departure from the hard-line stances of D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), Wiedefeld said he recognizes that a dedicated revenue source for Metro might not be possible with the current political realities — but he wants the region's Republicans, particularly Hogan and Rep. Barbara Comstock (Va.), to work to ensure that federal funding ramps up in coming years.
"Ideally, I would love to have the dedicated [funding] sooner, because at some point we know we have to get there," Wiedefeld said Tuesday in meeting with members of The Washington Post editorial board and reporters.
"I think it may be the reality of where we are as a region, just given the different dynamics that we work under, particularly the election cycle that we're in, with a gubernatorial election in Virginia in 1½ months, and one in a year and a month in both the District and Maryland," Wiedefeld said.
Hogan's proposal, announced Monday, calls for Maryland, the District, Virginia and the federal government to each allot Metro $125 million annually in new funding for four years, giving the region time to enact the broader financial and governance overhauls that leaders say the transit agency needs. Hogan's plan followed widespread criticism of his position in a closed-door regional summit two weeks ago that Maryland would not provide any extra funding for Metro.
The proposal faces high hurdles, however, in the GOP-
controlled Virginia General Assembly and at the federal level, where Republicans control both chambers of Congress.
President Trump's budget also included drastic cuts to transit spending. The plan also faces difficulties in the District, where Bowser and Mendelson criticized it because it does not amount to dedicated funding.
In an interview with the Post's editorial board, Wiedefeld said he was pleased by Hogan's reversal — and in the governor's candor in a letter outlining his plan. Wiedefeld is seeking $15.5 billion over a decade to support the system's long-term needs, including $500 million in new, annual dedicated funding to buoy Metro's capital budget. The funds in the Hogan plan would not be dedicated, meaning that Metro could not conduct long-term borrowing based on the allotments.
"I think [Hogan] was clear in his letter that he was not attempting to solve the long-term problem. … I thought it was also helpful that it wasn't tied to a lot of the other issues that are being kicked around," Wiedefeld said, referring to such polarizing governance issues as reshaping the Metro board, rewriting the Metro Compact or eliminating binding arbitration.
"It was a recognition that this is a financial need, it's a capital need, and it's important for the sustainability of the region and the system. Those were the messages," Wiedefeld said.
Wiedefeld wants the region's Republican leaders to play a hand in persuading the federal government to provide the money prescribed by Hogan.
In interviews this week, congressional officials and Metro board members said they would welcome Hogan's entrance into the discussion.
"Clearly he has a relationship with the current administration, and he's very strong that more federal money has to come into it, and I think obviously he could play a very strong leadership role in that," Wiedefeld said.
Wiedefeld noted that Hogan had recently successfully negotiated with U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao to nail down a $900 million full funding agreement for the light-rail Purple Line in the Maryland suburbs.
Wiedefeld also may be hewing to Hogan's proposal in an attempt to align himself with Metro-friendly Republicans who could advocate for the continuation of funding for the agency under the 2008 Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act (PRIIA).
That legislation allotted Metro $150 million a year in federal grant money, but it is scheduled to expire in September 2019.
Metro officials, and many regional leaders, want that funding to be extended — but Wiedefeld said he's aware that an extension is in no way assured.
"To assume PRIIA 2.0 is coming," Wiedefeld said Tuesday, "is a pretty big assumption."
A federal appointee to the Metro board said this week that Trump's budget demonstrates the administration is not keen on additional transit funding, especially at a time when Congress is weighing whether to renew PRIIA, which expires after 2018.
An agency financial analysis to be released at Thursday's Metro board meeting illustrates the drastic impact of a failure to meet the agency's revenue needs. If the federal grant is not renewed and the regional jurisdictions don't increase their funding, then the shortfall in capital needs would amount to nearly $1 billion starting in the fiscal year ending in mid-2019.
Hogan's proposal and extension of the federal program, according to the analysis, would cover the system's capital needs through mid-2020 and leave behind a manageable $17 million funding gap in the third year, fiscal 2021. By the fourth year, fiscal 2022, the gap would widen substantially, resulting in an $188 million shortfall, according to the analysis.
That wouldn't be as favorable as dedicated funding, paired with PRIIA reauthorization — which would meet the system's needs, according to the analysis — but would buy time for the region to come up with a long-term plan.
Wiedefeld's positive and detailed response also contrasted with that of Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), who has not publicly taken a position on the Hogan proposal. McAuliffe has said that he supports dedicated funding for Metro, provided the system shows progress on safety, reliability and efficiency.
But Monday, after Hogan's plan was unveiled, some grumbled that the temporary funding proposal amounted to punting, or deferring action, on the issue of dedicated funding.
"I would not frame it as kicking the can down the road, because it is being addressed in some manner — seriously addressed," Wiedefeld said. "If we're talking a $2 billion investment in that time frame, that's not kicking the can down the road."
Wiedefeld bristled at the suggestion that the lack of consensus in the region on dedicated funding indicated that the region's politicians lack confidence that Metro is improving.
Instead, he said, Hogan's call for $500 million in annual new funding — even if it's not a long-term Metro-specific tax — is the kind of proposal that would have been unimaginable coming from a Republican governor two years ago.
"To see the letter that Hogan sent yesterday — that's how far we've come," Wiedefeld said. "We're getting further and further away from, 'Don't even talk to us about [money] because the thing is so unreliable and is not being managed correctly.' I think that is getting behind us. That is why we're having some real discussions about this issue, rather than the level we've had in the past."
"I don't remember a governor coming in with a strong proposal in the past like this," he added.
Robert McCartney contributed to this report.