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Trump administration budget trims Metro subsidy instead of killing it, as feared

Passengers wait for trains at the Navy Yard Metro station on Feb. 8.
Passengers wait for trains at the Navy Yard Metro station on Feb. 8. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

Metro got a little good news Monday when President Trump’s budget proposed to trim the agency’s federal subsidy to $120 million from $150 million rather than eliminate it, as feared.

But the White House and the Transportation Department also warned that they want to shrink federal support for Metro, at a time when the region’s top elected officials of both parties are seeking to increase such backing.

The office of Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) said earlier this month that the Trump administration planned to omit a critical grant for the transit agency from its budget for the 2019 fiscal year.

It wasn’t clear Monday whether the White House had changed its mind, possibly under pressure from Congress, or whether Warner and others had misread or overstated the administration’s intentions.

Either way, the Trump administration made clear it hopes the $30 million reduction is only the beginning of a decline in federal spending on Metro.

“The administration does believe that long-term, [the] federal role needs to be lessened, and reducing the federal contribution reflects that,” an Office of Management and Budget official said. “Federal direct subsidies and oversight should be curtailed.”

A Transportation spokeswoman said in a statement that “it makes sense for the Department to scale down” funding for Metro. The statement cited “constrained resources,” Metro’s advances in fixing safety issues, and progress in the District, Maryland and Virginia in raising funds on their own.

Warner and other local officials have been pressing the administration both to provide full federal funding for Metro and to increase such support. Two of the region’s top Republican officials — Rep. Barbara Comstock (Va.) and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan — have urged increased federal funding if Metro meets certain conditions.

Warner raised the alarm previously that the White House might scrap the Metro subsidy altogether. He said the administration believed the 10-year federal grant program for Metro has expired and cited a Federal Transit Administration briefing to Congress in the spring of 2017 that made that point.

OMB and the Transportation Department appeared to differ on that issue Monday. OMB said the authorization expires in 2019. Transportation said it expires in fiscal 2018, but the White House proposes to continue direct funding at $120 million in fiscal 2019 anyway.

Metro welcomed Monday’s budget news and said it would work in Congress to reverse the proposed $30 million cut. Any reduction in funding would complicate Metro’s financial picture at a time when the agency is pushing for the federal grant program to be renewed to meet its considerable capital needs.

Democrats: Trump budget to cut $150 million in expected Metro funds.

The grant money is used to purchase new rail cars, pay for track upgrades and replace aging equipment. The grant is part of the 2008 Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act, known as PRIIA.

“We appreciate the Administration’s recognition of the important safety and reliability investments Metro requires, as well as this acknowledgment of the critical role the system plays in the nation’s capital,” a Metro spokeswoman said in a statement. “We will continue to work with our congressional delegation and leadership on the Hill to ensure the full $150 million ­PRIIA funding is included in the federal FY19 appropriations.”

Warner sought to claim some credit Monday for what he portrayed as a reversal.

“Not long ago, the Administration was planning to zero out funding for [Metro] in its budget request to Congress,” Warner said in a statement. “I, along with other members of the Capital Region delegation, publicly pushed the Administration to honor the federal government’s ten-year commitment to Metro. We’ll keep up the fight in Congress to ensure that Metro receives the full $150 million in federal funds that they are owed for the next fiscal year.”

D.C.-area Democrats offer federal Metro bill to counter that of GOP’s Rep. Comstock.

The FTA’s position last spring that the 10-year Metro funding program expires this year was based on a technicality in the wording of the bill.

It appeared to leave open the possibility that the authorization ends in the current fiscal year. But the FTA also said that Congress could extend the authorization to make sure Metro got the full allotment.

“Every indication from the administration was that they were strongly considering omitting the funding from the budget request,” Warner spokeswoman Rachel Cohen said.

Comstock, the only Republican in Congress who represents a jurisdiction in the immediate Washington area, said she had not heard from anyone except Warner and Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) that the White House was considering omitting the Metro grant.

“I’m not sure what happened there,” Comstock said. “As we have in the past, we’ll fight for the full $150 million.”

Warner issued the warning about the administration’s plans at the same time that he, Kaine, and the two Democratic senators from Maryland — Chris Van Hollen and Benjamin L. Cardin — wrote to OMB Director Mick Mulvaney and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao urging continuation of the PRIIA funds.