Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe blasted Metro’s board as a “joke” Wednesday over a proposal to cancel the Silver Line, and his transportation secretary called for board members to adopt a lower profile, saying their “political rhetoric” is hurting the system.
Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne, speaking at a regional transportation forum in Arlington, said Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld should serve as the public voice of the agency.
Although Layne didn’t initially name names, he said afterward that Jack Evans, the Metro board’s chairman and a D.C. Council member, who was sitting in the front row, was among those he was criticizing, along with board member Corbett A. Price, who also represents the District.
McAuliffe (D) and Layne also rejected calls from Evans (D) and other District officials to quickly push for a regionwide sales tax or other dedicated funding source for Metro. They said Virginia would contribute more money to the transit system only after seeing a detailed, long-term plan for fixing the agency’s problems.
Evans and other D.C. officials responded that Metro’s financial condition is so dire that it can’t afford to wait. They said Virginia and the rest of the region already have all the information they need.
The pointed exchanges between the two jurisdictions highlight the political and economic divisions within the Metro board and the region as they struggle to repair the aging system, along with its finances and governance structure.
The 16-member board was nearly paralyzed last year after several newcomers, including Evans, pushed for a shake-up of the system. The board regained momentum after hiring Wiedefeld as general manager a year ago, but rifts have opened again over service hours, funding and board structure.
Price triggered the latest dust-up Tuesday when he said Metro should consider canceling the Silver Line extension in Northern Virginia to save money. If Virginia wants to complete the extension, he said, it ought to support a regionwide sales tax, as D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) has urged.
Evans expressed support for Price’s idea, which drew a withering response from McAuliffe. Speaking on WTOP’s “Ask the Governor” program, McAuliffe said Metro board members “don’t have a clue what they’re talking about.”
McAuliffe faulted board members for engaging in “goofy, naive political theater” and “yakking at the press” when they should be focusing on how to fix the system.
The governor said he understands the need for a dedicated source to fund Metro’s operations and maintenance but is reluctant to offer any funding until he has a clear idea of how it will be used.
“Come to me with a comprehensive long-term plan, tell me what the cost is going to be and I will be your greatest advocate,” he said. “But people throw out numbers — as I say, you don’t go to your legislature with half-baked plans. You can’t.”
McAuliffe also said that the board’s governance structure “stinks” and that he would be open to proposals for changing how the transit system is governed.
Layne made his comments faulting board members at the forum organized by the Greater Washington Board of Trade. Other speakers at the event included Wiedefeld; Leif Dormsjo, the District’s transportation director; and Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn.
“We’re not comfortable at any level with what we’ve been hearing out of the board, quite frankly,” Layne said. “We believe that Paul [Wiedefeld] is the one that brings the most credibility.”
He said Metro needs “calm heads, real solutions, instead of political expediency and threats.”
Evans responded during the question-and-answer period, saying he has spoken out forcefully to stir concern about Metro. A high-profile chairman, he has repeatedly pressed for billions of dollars of fresh funding for Metro and for streamlining the board’s structure to make it more effective.
“I volunteered for this job,” Evans said. “My passion is to get Metro fixed. Over the last year and a half, my goal was to bring the region’s awareness of the dire situation we face to everyone’s attention, because there was a view that Metro would take care of itself, that everything was fine.”
He continued: “At least at this point, everybody realizes that’s not the case.”
Asked later about Virginia’s criticisms, Evans again defended Price for suggesting that Metro should not extend the Silver Line given that its operations would add to the agency’s deficit.
“In analyzing what Corbett said, he is a turnaround specialist. He is not a joke,” Evans said.
“If you are running a core business that is failing — that’s Metro; we’re losing $900 million a year — would you continue to expand that business? That’s all that Corbett is saying. That’s not an unreasonable thing to bring up,” Evans said.
Virginia officials said it would be self-destructive to cancel the $5.8 billion Silver Line extension, the second phase of which extends the line to Dulles International Airport and into Loudoun County. Phase 2, which is scheduled to open in 2020, is almost half-built, and cancellation would break contracts, draw lawsuits and snarl development plans along a key corridor in Fairfax and Loudoun counties.
“The Silver Line is going to get built,” Layne said. To suggest otherwise is “obviously political rhetoric,” he added.
Metro is not building or paying for construction of the Silver Line, but it is responsible for operating it. Price said that killing the extension would save about $100 million in operating costs over two fiscal years beginning in mid-2018.
Dormsjo joined Evans and Price in urging fast action to raise money for Metro. He said Virginia and Maryland should pass legislation in the General Assembly sessions beginning in January to allow their Washington suburbs to tax themselves to support Metro.
“I don’t think we have the luxury of an additional 12 months to contemplate the future of Metro,” said Dormsjo, who also is a Metro board member.
Maryland’s Rahn took a position close to Virginia’s, saying it’s “a long road” before Gov. Larry Hogan (R) could decide whether to support allowing Montgomery and Prince George’s counties to tax themselves for Metro.
“There needs to be a lot of refinement for that conversation to move forward,” Rahn said. “I’m not sure that expecting something like that to pass this legislative session would be a reasonable expectation.”
But Rahn disclosed that Maryland’s thinking is closer to the District’s than to Virginia’s regarding another key issue — changing Metro’s governance structure.
Virginia has said it’s necessary to revise Metro’s compact, the founding document that dictates the funding and governing structure. The District has instead said that a debate over the compact would distract from the more important priority of obtaining dedicated funding.
Rahn said changes to the compact would be “very difficult” and added, “I just don’t see that as a productive area for us to be working in.”
At the same time, he acknowledged that the current disputes highlight “the difficulties of three jurisdictions coming together.”
In a related development, Board of Trade President James C. Dinegar said regional business leaders plan to increase their advocacy to pressure elected leaders to support increased funding for Metro. “You will see an enhanced role from the business community, not just weighing in on this but pushing this on a faster track,” Dinegar said.
To overcome disagreements among top business groups over the best way forward, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, or COG, plans to invite them to meet to agree on a common strategy.
“We must have a unified approach in order to succeed,” COG Chairman Roger Berliner said.