Metro is headed toward crisis, and the Washington region hasn't agreed on the best way to save it. But what would a realistic rescue package look like — one that could win sufficient political and popular support?
Here’s an attempt to describe such a consensus, based on input from government officials, transit experts and other observers both inside and outside Metro.
There’s no shortage of ideas to fix the troubled transit agency. For more than a year, politicians, business groups and activists have proposed remedies that include weakening unions, raising taxes and reorganizing the agency’s board of directors.
But many of the solutions are contradictory, and all face resistance from one interest group or another.
To untangle the knot, this set of proposals is designed to directly address Metro’s structural problems in ways that could win regionwide backing. They are split-the-difference compromises, which give something to everyone and everything to no one.
The key proposals are:
●Reform labor practices to restrain costs and improve worker accountability, but do so within the existing system in which outside arbiters ultimately decide major union disputes. This falls short of what Republican lawmakers and some business groups are demanding but would still yield savings and efficiencies. Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld favors keeping the current arbitration system, at least for now.
●Raise additional money for Metro through both a new regional sales tax and a new property tax on real estate located near Metro stations. This would spread the burden equitably, rather than piling the cost entirely on consumers or developers.
●Restructure and shrink the Metro board, while leaving it big enough that jurisdictions that provide significant portions of funding — chiefly Virginia — feel adequately represented. Make one critical change, also endorsed by Wiedefeld: Make board members’ sole legal responsibility Metro’s well-being. At present, members’ allegiances are torn between Metro and the jurisdictions they represent.
●Set a deadline of July 2019 for an outside control board to take over Metro if the District, Maryland, Virginia and the suburbs have not approved the reforms and taxes. The region won’t act without the threat of losing control. But legislative and budget schedules mean that at least two years are needed to adopt the necessary laws.
No matter what plan is ultimately approved, it will require a herculean effort to win the necessary backing. It has to bridge ideological gaps between Democrats and Republicans. It has to resolve a four-way tug-of-war among the District, Maryland, Virginia and the federal government.
The reform effort is entering a critical phase. This month, Wiedefeld will release updated figures on how much additional money Metro will need in coming years. Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) recently tapped former U.S. transportation secretary Ray LaHood to head a panel to make recommendations on Metro governance and funding by fall.
The plan is to draft bills that the Virginia and Maryland legislatures can approve in early 2018 to allow the Washington suburbs to raise local taxes to support the transit system. It’s also necessary to persuade Congress to extend the program that gives Metro $150 million a year in federal funds.
The biggest risk is that the region will ultimately balk at making major changes, as it has in the past, because it’s just too difficult and expensive.
That would be a tragedy for two reasons. First, the system has found a potential savior in Wiedefeld. In his first 16 months on the job, the transit chief has earned widespread respect, and people want him to succeed.
Wiedefeld has already made tough decisions to reduce service hours to leave more time for system maintenance, and to cut jobs and crack down on absenteeism. If he doesn’t get the support he needs to go further, the region and Metro will have missed a historic opportunity.
Second, the system is facing a financial crisis within the next year or two unless significant additional funding is found.
The agency needs hundreds of millions of dollars a year in additional resources to purchase new equipment and invest in maintenance. Without such support, it will have to further reduce service and raise fares, leading to a further decline in ridership.
Here’s the central predicament. To win political support for funding, Metro has to persuade legislators in the District, Richmond, Annapolis and Congress that it has taken the right steps to improve its governance, management and efficiency.
Then Metro has to do the same with lawmakers — or with voters themselves, if referendums are needed — in the suburban jurisdictions served by Metro.
But the numerous lawmakers and interest groups involved have sharply contrasting views about which reforms and new taxes to adopt.
Here are compromise proposals that a broad-based coalition might support:
●Give management greater power in its relations with unions but keep mandatory binding arbitration.
This is one of the thorniest disputes. Republicans who control Congress and the Virginia General Assembly have said binding arbitration must go. But Democrats who control the Maryland legislature and the District government want to keep it.
Additionally, eliminating binding arbitration would leave unions free to strike, potentially creating commuting disruptions that could shut down the region and nation’s capital.
Critics say binding arbitration leads to excessive labor costs, because arbiters tend to side with unions in disputes over contracts and work rules.
But Wiedefeld and many other analysts say Metro’s labor costs are roughly in line with those of other transit systems. And while Wiedefeld sees “pluses and minuses” in getting rid of binding arbitration, he said he would oppose dropping it right away.
“I think there are a lot of things that we need to look at before we go that far,” Wiedefeld said in an interview.
He said new technologies could reduce labor costs and that Metro could eliminate some outdated or other low-priority operations. Wiedefeld has said there’s no reason Metro can’t achieve efficiency with a unionized workforce, as many other companies have done.
Other analysts have said Metro should insist on truly independent arbiters, instead of those who tend to side with unions. And unions could make concessions in a new contract, now under negotiation. They could increase workers’ contributions to the pension fund to help eliminate its deficit of nearly $3 billion.
●Use two different taxes to raise money to overcome a dispute over funding.
D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and business groups favor a regionwide sales tax. A penny on the dollar is estimated as sufficient to cover Metro’s needs.
But unions, liberal grass-roots groups and some transit advocates instead want to tax developers whose property near Metro stations has risen in value because of its proximity to transit.
A fair solution is to levy just a half-cent sales tax, and make up the difference with a property tax.
Here’s the rationale: The entire region benefits from Metro because it reduces traffic congestion and encourages economic growth, so all residents should chip in via the sales tax. But owners of property near Metro stations reap extra advantages, so they should also pick up a hefty part of the cost.
●Shrink the Metro board to 12 by getting rid of four of the eight alternate members. This would require revising the Metro compact, which dictates the agency’s governing structure and funding formula.
Some favor dumping all eight alternates and operating with an eight-member board. Metro Board Chairman Jack Evans wants to limit the panel to five, saying it’s impossible to reach consensus with so many voices.
But the board can’t get too small because of the Virginia delegation’s unique structure. Its four members represent six jurisdictions that contribute to the budget: the state, Fairfax and Arlington counties, and the cities of Alexandria, Fairfax and Falls Church.
It would be difficult to persuade Virginia to give up one seat on the board. Losing two could be a nonstarter.
In addition, as several studies have advocated, board members should have bear a single legal responsibility for Metro’s overall best interest.
“I think you do need a board that has much more of the financial fiduciary responsibility to this agency,” Wiedefeld said. Speaking of the current members’ divided loyalties, he said, “To be frank, it’s not fair to put them in that position.”
●Finally, give the region a realistic deadline of two years for solving the problems on its own before imposing a control board.
In the end, such changes won’t make much difference by themselves unless Metro riders feel the system is getting better under Wiedefeld.
Asked how he would persuade Congress and the region to contribute more, Wiedefeld said, “Hopefully, over the last year, they’ve seen at least the signs that we’re doing this differently in terms of how we’re managing.” He said he hoped that his “very hard decisions” on personnel and service “are starting to build a case that we’ve got things much tighter now.”
Wiedefeld can’t do it all on his own. All parties need to give a little to make the grand bargain necessary to save our once-proud Metro.