Virginia's House majority leader said this week he "would like to help Metro" in the legislative session that starts next month, but only if there are rigorous reforms to restrain labor costs and ensure safety.
The comments by Del. M. Kirkland Cox (R-Colonial Heights) underline the political and legislative challenges that face Gov. Terry McAuliffe's plan to provide dedicated funding for Metro. The outgoing Democratic governor is expected to announce his financing proposal Monday when he releases his final budget.
Cox said his caucus would prefer to support Metro via federal legislation recently proposed by Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.). Comstock's bill would increase Virginia's contribution to Metro by $25 million a year, which is much less than the transit agency's request for about $150 million from the state as its share of the money needed to maintain safety and reliability.
Comstock's bill is "a more practical way for Republicans to get to the money piece," Cox said Tuesday at a meeting of the Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce.
Cox is in line to be House speaker, pending results of recounts following last month's election. Even if the Democrats win enough recounts to gain control of the chamber, Cox could still wield considerable power as minority leader.
In a separate development, top local elected officials on the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments failed to agree Wednesday on a long-term plan for funding the agency despite nearly a year of formal discussions aimed at reaching a consensus.
The division on COG's board of directors pits the District against Virginia and Maryland. The District's representatives, led by D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), insisted that a uniform, regionwide tax should provide the additional $500 million a year that Metro says it needs.
Virginia and Maryland said that each jurisdiction and the federal government should pay an equal share, deciding for themselves how to raise the money. At a meeting of 25 COG board members, the two states' representatives easily outvoted the District's to approve a resolution endorsing Maryland and Virginia's position.
COG resolutions are not legally binding and serve primarily to demonstrate regional intent. As a result, the failure to achieve consensus highlights the region's inability to speak with a unified voice on the key question of how to pay for Metro.
"I'm disappointed that the District did not join in," said Fairfax Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova (D), who led the Metro Strategy Group formed in January to seek accord.
"This is not the end of the process," Bulova said. "We're in the middle, really, of bringing the region together on deciding on more funding and then deciding how it will be allocated."
The debate over Metro will enter a new phase with McAuliffe's plan for a dedicated revenue source. The Virginia governor has not provided details, except to say that it will come with two conditions: that the District and Maryland provide comparable funding, and that Metro adopt a five-member "reform board" as recommended in a recent study by former U.S. transportation secretary Ray LaHood.
McAuliffe steps down as governor next month at the end of a four-year term, when he will hand off the Metro effort to fellow Democrat and ally, Gov.-elect Ralph Northam.
Cox acknowledged that Metro is " a very valuable system," but made clear his party wants enforceable restrictions on labor costs and other changes.
"We'd like to do something for Metro," he said. "The key thing for a lot of our people is the reform components have to be in place."
He said that he and other GOP legislators "have not been real happy with the safety record, have not been real happy with the labor costs . . . exorbitant overtime pay, etc."
Cox repeatedly praised the Comstock bill, which would weaken workers' pension guarantees, cap overtime pay and freeze Metro's personnel-related expenses for five years.
It would set up a reform board, similar to LaHood's, but with authority to unilaterally revise labor agreements.
The provisions targeting labor have so far led Democrats in Northern Virginia and the Maryland suburbs to shy away from backing the Comstock bill — a lack of support that hurts its chances.
The Comstock bill would increase the annual federal subsidy to Metro from $150 million to $225 million, on condition that Virginia, Maryland and the District continue to provide matching funds. That means Virginia would increase its match from $50 million a year to $75 million, as part of a total increase in federal and local subsidies of $150 million a year.
Cox appeared to think that would be sufficient. But the Metro board, COG and other stakeholders including business and labor leaders have all endorsed General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld's request for an additional $500 million a year to make up for decades of underinvestment.
In the COG discussions, a main point of contention has been how to share the burden of providing the additional funding.
Until this month, Virginia and Maryland jurisdictions have supported using an existing formula under which the District pays 35.7 percent of capital costs, Maryland pays 33.4 percent and Virginia pays 30.9 percent. The formula, which dates to Metro's founding 40 years ago, is recalculated regularly to take into account changes in population, ridership and the addition of stations.
But the District has pushed for a uniform regional tax — such as a sales tax — to pay for Metro's additional needs. The city said it is penalized by the existing formula, because the District pays more than Virginia and Maryland even though it has a smaller population and tax base.
In response, Bulova proposed a compromise under which each of the three jurisdictions, and the federal government, would contribute equal shares of $125 million a year.
But Mendelson said that, too, was unfair, because the District has only 15 percent of the region's population. He and others also expressed doubt that the federal government would contribute the extra $125 million, so the actual burden on each of the three local jurisdictions would be larger.