A proposal to replace the Metro board with a smaller panel drew bipartisan support from Virginia officials and regional business leaders Tuesday, but Maryland raised legal concerns and the District said it would support the plan only if combined with a regional sales tax or other dedicated funding for the agency.
Meanwhile, Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) said she is in the final stages of drafting a long-awaited bill to shrink the board from 16 members to five, as former U.S. transportation secretary Ray LaHood recommended in a report made public Sunday. The bill would give the “reform” board enhanced powers and provide increased federal funding for the transit system, Comstock said, but she declined to provide details.
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s transportation secretary and a coalition of major business groups said they would seek quick action to scrap and replace the Metro board in the wake of the LaHood report, which was obtained by The Washington Post before its official release later this month.
They hope an overhaul of Metro’s governance — including barring elected officials from serving on the new board — will encourage the Virginia and Maryland state legislatures to approve increased funding for the transit agency when their annual sessions begin in January.
“I would hope that the [area governments] would be acting as quickly as possible on putting together a Metro reform board,” said Jim Dyke, a former Metro board member who now works on the Metro task force of the Greater Washington Board of Trade.
But the plan drew criticism from Metro board members — who would lose their posts — and some elected officials, including Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.). They said suburban jurisdictions would resist losing the representation that a large board allows.
“From a Maryland and Virginia point of view, there are definitely problems with trying to create that kind of smaller board,” said Metro board member Michael Goldman, who represents Maryland. “They don’t want to get cut out of the system.”
Board member Paul Smedberg noted that six Northern Virginia jurisdictions provide funding for Metro and deserve a voice.
“I personally have found that elected and appointed members both bring value and different perspectives, and from my view, it’s really helped the debate,” said Smedberg, who also is a member of the Alexandria City Council.
There was broad acknowledgment — including from transit advocates — that LaHood’s report provides independent validation of Metro’s request for an additional $500 million a year for new equipment and repairs to ensure safety and reliability.
“The conversation has changed to how to do it,” said Virginia Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne, who helped McAuliffe (D) recruit LaHood to do the study.
Most officials, business groups, transit advocates and other stakeholders also endorsed LaHood’s recommendation that Metro needs dedicated funding — a tax or other mechanism to provide a reliable, long-term stream of revenue that could be pledged to repay bonds and thus help Metro borrow on financial markets.
But in what many people viewed as the principal shortcoming of LaHood’s report, it doesn’t recommend a specific tax or other mechanism for raising that funding. Instead, he left it up to each jurisdiction to choose its own way.
It was immediately clear that this will continue to be a sticking point.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) declined to endorse an eventual commitment to dedicated funding. Instead, his office reaffirmed his proposal for Maryland, Virginia, the District and the federal government to each contribute an additional $500 million over four years.
Hogan spokesman Doug Mayer said the governor’s plan is “the only plan that has a realistic chance of being adopted.”
D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) wants a regionwide sales tax and said she will only consider ousting the Metro board for a new panel if the two are part of the same package.
She and others have criticized Hogan’s plan as a temporary fix.
“What [Hogan’s plan] amounts to is some people’s willingness to kick the can down the road for four years,” Bowser said. “Too many people have worked on this issue very seriously, and we should not kill the momentum with a stopgap measure that doesn’t give Metro what it needs.”
The dispute between Maryland and the District highlights why many were disappointed that LaHood didn’t make a recommendation on how to raise the dedicated funding.
“He had a golden opportunity to really make a statement on dedicated funding, and he ducked,” Metro Board Chairman Jack Evans said.
But LaHood said it would have been “foolish” for him to recommend a uniform regional sales tax, as favored by the District, top officials in Montgomery County and regional budget experts.
“I talked to everybody, and the bottom line is there’s no consensus, there’s no agreement for a regional sales tax,” LaHood said.
McAuliffe supports dedicated funding and plans to propose it in his final budget in December. But, Virginia has opposed a uniform regionwide sales tax.
LaHood urged an increase in federal funding for Metro, and Comstock said her bill would provide an unspecified amount. She said she plans to file the legislation before the end of the year, and has already discussed it with Reps. John Delaney (D-Md.) and Don Beyer (D-Va.) and plans to do so soon with Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.).
The bill “definitely has a lot of similarities” with the LaHood plan, Comstock said, partly because she has been consulting with LaHood, and both have consulted with business leaders.
“The carrot would be additional funding,” she said. “We’ll have to have some considerable savings and reforms, in exchange for the money.”
Connolly said he’s agnostic about reducing the size of the board but is adamantly opposed to barring elected officials from serving on the new board. Because Metro’s problems directly affect millions of the region’s taxpayers, at least some of the members should be people who are responsible to voters if they fail to get Metro back on track.
Connolly said he feared that a board stacked with “technocrats,” with no direct relationship with voters, would be “a recipe for further decline” — and he worries the focus on overhauling the board will suck energy from the battle to establish a long-term funding source for the agency.
There also were legal questions over LaHood’s board proposal. Hogan supports restructuring, but his office questioned
LaHood’s claim that the changes could be made without revising the Metro Compact, or governing document. That would be a lengthy, cumbersome process that virtually all parties want to avoid.
“The governor’s legal counsel has advised that reforming the board in the manner detailed in this [Lahood] report would require revisiting the Compact,” spokesman Mayer said.
LaHood said research by lawyers at DLA Piper, the global business law firm where he works, shows how it could be done without revising the Compact.
“I have the legal documentation that show it can be done,” LaHood said. “Principals can ask their appointees to step aside. These appointments can be made.”
Bowser said she agreed with LaHood that it was legally possible.
“Each jurisdiction could pass simple legislation to make that happen,” she said.
But she said she couldn’t support shrinking the board without a commitment to fix the bigger problem of providing Metro with funding.
“I don’t have an issue with making the board smaller as long as we’re doing what the authority really needs, and that is securing its financial future,” Bowser said. “I’m not going to tell people that changing the board is going to fix Metro when I know it needs $1.5 billion a year” for capital investments, she said.
Hearing the overall reaction, Layne acknowledged that his original hopes for the LaHood project were unrealistic. He and McAuliffe had thought the former secretary, a respected outsider with bipartisan credentials, could unite the region around a shared plan.
“Obviously we would have loved to see everybody jump up and say, ‘This is the answer,’ but … that might have been a little naive,” Layne said.