A contentious two-week public feud between Maryland officials and D.C. Metro board members that included accusations of extortion, calls for the chairman’s resignation and talk of disbanding the panel was defused with little fanfare Thursday when the board reached agreement on a committee restructuring that had threatened to block a critical land swap for the 16-mile light-rail Purple Line.
In the end, the fighting and name-calling was resolved in a couple of minutes; the result, the number of Metro board committees was shrunk from seven to four. Maryland got its land deal.
Board chairman Jack Evans had threatened to veto the land swap unless Maryland representatives on the panel agreed to a proposal to overhaul the board’s committee structure. Maryland board members had forced the tabling of the proposal at a meeting this summer over concerns about how it distributed power.
The land deal gives Maryland the easements it needs to move forward with construction of the Purple Line, scheduled to begin early next month. Metro will transfer the land rights to properties at the New Carrollton, College Park and Silver Spring Metro stations. The properties together are valued between $24 million and $37 million. Maryland, in turn, will give Metro the land rights to a 450-space parking lot and a plot of land, valued together at $17.1 million.
Evans’s threat to block the deal had prompted harsh criticism from other elected officials, including Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R), who called it extortion and said he would push to disband the board if Evans followed through. Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) joined Hogan in calling for Evans to resign. And in a radio interview Wednesday, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) said Evans should “knock it off” with what he called the “crazy, insane” rhetoric.
At Thursday’s board meeting, member Corbett A. Price, who represents the District and chairs the panel’s governance subcommittee, unveiled a modified version of the restructuring. It cut the number of board committees but did not realign the group’s election calendar — a provision that could have lengthened Evans’s term by six months.
Despite the concessions, board member Keturah Harley, who represents Maryland, abstained from the vote via conference call. Hogan spokesman Doug Mayer said later that Harley’s vote was in protest of Evans’s negotiation tactics.
However, Kathy Porter, who represents Montgomery County, joined the rest of the board in voting in favor of the proposal.
Evans was pleased with the result.
“There is a quote I’m going to say: ‘Democracy is messy,’ but it’s better than any other form of government,” Evans said in remarks after the meeting. “And we have a democracy — that’s what our board is. And it’s messy. . . . But at the end of the day, we come together as you saw today, we came together with an agreement. The Purple Line was voted on. The committee structure was voted on. And we came together and moved forward.”
In the run-up to the Purple Line vote, board member Christian Dorsey weighed in on recent criticisms that the board is mired in parochialism.
“I think the board engages in exactly the kind of work that it ought to,” said Dorsey, who represents Arlington.
At a previous board meeting, Dorsey and other members had raised concerns about whether Metro was getting its fair share in the land deal.
In the ensuing two weeks, officials from Metro and Maryland provided additional information to board members, who ultimately determined that they were comfortable that the benefits of the Purple Line would be significant enough to make up for the disparities in the potential value of the land being traded away.
The deliberative process, Dorsey argued, was part of Metro board members performing the core function of their jobs — fulfilling their responsibility to make sure that the cash-strapped agency makes smart fiscal decisions.
“This board has nothing to be ashamed of in getting a full airing of discussions in what we’re being asked to consider,” Dorsey said. “It was certainly appropriate and necessary that this board engage in rigorous questioning.”
Despite the amicable resolution, Hogan’s office maintained its call for Evans to resign.
“Ultimately, at the end of the day, the most important thing that happened was that the Purple Line easements went through,” Hogan spokesman Mayer said. But the concessions, he said, did not mean the governor was reversing his position on Evans.
“It’s still extortion — just because you fail at it doesn’t make you any less culpable,” Mayer said. “We think Evans should still resign because of this ridiculous episode and waste of time, and all the other random outbursts that he has made over the last how many years.”
Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld, who had privately advocated for the land swap’s quick approval, expressed relief the ordeal was over.
“I am obviously a very strong supporter of the Purple Line. I think it means so much for the region,” Wiedefeld said. “I’m very glad that we’re beyond that.”
In other news, the agency celebrated some positive financial developments. First, the Federal Transit Administration has fully lifted the “restricted drawdown” penalties for the agency. Since 2014, Metro had been barred from directly spending the $400 million allotted in federal grants; instead, it had to spend its own money on capital expenses, file paper requests for reimbursement and then wait for months to be repaid by the federal government.
The agency also announced that an outside accounting firm issued a “clean” audit for the most recent fiscal year.
“This doesn’t mean we’re at perfection,” Metro board member Jim Corcoran said, “but we’re well on our way to improvement.”