Virginia lawmakers gave a critical boost to creation of a new Metro safety oversight body Thursday, but they added a condition requiring that the state open talks with its partners on reforming the transit agency’s governing structure, labor relations and financing.
The action by the House Transportation Committee led both Republicans and Democrats in Richmond to express confidence that the current General Assembly session would approve a bill creating the long-delayed Metro Safety Commission as required by the federal government.
Even though Virginia, Maryland and the District are certain to miss a deadline next week for creating the oversight body, they hope that they’ve made enough progress to forestall the Federal Transit Administration from following through on a threat to punish them by withholding millions of dollars of transit aid.
The D.C. Council has already approved legislation to create the commission, and the Maryland General Assembly is expected to do so in the current session.
A twist in Richmond was the committee’s bipartisan approval of compromise language, drafted by Republican delegates and the administration of Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), that could lead to far-reaching changes at Metro.
The new language requires the state’s transportation secretary to open discussions with the District, Maryland and the federal government on rewriting the Metro compact, which dictates how the agency is governed and financed. The talks would seek a list of unspecified “reforms” of Metro’s board, labor costs, pension deficit, safety operations and overall efficiency.
The initiative reflects growing interest in Virginia, in Congress and from the region’s business community in seeking fundamental changes at Metro to address its problems with safety, reliability and finances.
“It’s time to put pencil to paper and get this done,’” said Del. James M. LeMunyon (R-Fairfax), the bill’s sponsor. “Get a new compact revised so it can be approved by the three jurisdictions and the federal government.”
LeMunyon said Metro “needs to be repaired in a number of different ways so we have financial stability for the long term, and we have a governing body that’s functional.”
Virginia Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne, who negotiated the compromise with LeMunyon and Del. J. Randall Minchew (R-Loudoun), echoed the sentiment.
“We want to send a clear signal that Virginia is serious about doing this,” Layne said.
Layne and the Democrats won a significant concession by softening a Republican-backed provision that would have blocked forming the safety commission until the Metro compact was changed. It would have required a compact with weaker union protections and a fix to Metro’s pension deficit of nearly $3 billion.
That provision, now dropped, would have effectively killed prospects of setting up the safety commission this year. That’s because it would take months or even years to win agreement among Virginia, the District, Maryland and the federal government on changing the compact.
The three jurisdictions have admitted they won’t set up the safety commission by Feb. 9 as demanded by former transportation secretary Anthony Foxx. It isn’t clear whether his successor, Elaine Chao, whose nomination was confirmed Tuesday by the U.S. Senate, will follow through with Foxx’s threat.
The commission, with six voting members, is to assume oversight control from the FTA. Foxx took the unprecedented step of handing the FTA responsibility over a year ago, after federal officials determined that the former body responsible, the Tri-State Oversight Committee, was inadequate.
The commission will be empowered to adopt and enforce Metro safety rules, conduct inspections, order “corrective action plans,” impose fines for noncompliance, issue subpoenas and compel the agency to spend more money on safety-critical issues.
Virginia’s push to revise the compact comes as two U.S. House members, Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) and Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.), are preparing separate legislation designed to force changes in the document.
The compact, approved in 1966, created Metro’s complicated governing structure and funding formulas.
Although an increasing number of elected officials, business leaders and others are calling for changes in the compact, there are major disagreements over what those changes should be.
In particular, while Republicans and some Democrats favor weakening union protections by eliminating binding arbitration of labor disputes, many Democrats view such a proposal as a nonstarter.
Critics say binding arbitration has led to inflated labor costs. Without binding arbitration, however, Metro’s unions would be free to stage strikes that would cripple a system that hundreds of thousands depend on daily.
In addition, many Democrats want any changes in the compact to add a dedicated funding source for Metro. But Republicans, including Comstock, say no funding measures can be added until Metro’s governance is reformed.
The compromise language in the Virginia bill says both issues should be addressed, but doesn’t take a position on either.
It calls for reforms in the compact “necessary to ensure the near term and long term viability” of Metro.
Regarding the union, it says only that the reforms should be related to “labor costs and labor relations.”
It doesn’t say anything specific about funding, but calls for “financial and operational improvements necessary to ensure that [Metro’s] performance is at least as efficient as its closest comparable transit systems in the United States.”
The bill requires the Virginia transportation secretary to deliver quarterly reports to the legislature on progress on reforming the compact.
Neither the District nor Maryland would comment on the prospect of the talks with Virginia. A spokeswoman for Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) said his office would look at the bill after final passage. A spokesman for the District Department of Transportation said, “It would be premature for us to comment on any future conversations with our partners.”
The District spokesman added that the committee vote in Richmond “bodes well for the three jurisdictions that have worked so closely to move the MSC compact forward.”