For the past two years, a chorus of regional elected officials, business leaders and other advocates said Metro should get additional money only on condition that far-reaching reforms were adopted to improve the transit system’s governance and management.
It seemed that every month yielded a new study or pronouncement calling to shrink the Metro board, weaken the agency’s labor unions or link funding to measurable improvement in safety, reliability and financial management.
It didn’t happen that way.
Although Metro is on the verge of obtaining $500 million a year in additional funding under a landmark accord, the accompanying changes in governance are considerably more modest than those originally envisioned by elected officials, business leaders and transit advocates.
Instead of replacing the 16-member board with a five-member “reform board,” as recommended in multiple studies, a provision in Virginia’s funding bill will merely reduce the role of the board’s eight alternate members.
Instead of directly tackling the power of unions at the bargaining table, Virginia and Maryland plan to impose a 3 percent cap in annual increases in the transit agency’s subsidy requests to the jurisdictions that fund it.
It turned out it was easier to persuade Virginia, Maryland and the District to give Metro more money than to win agreement on the legally complex and politically charged question of how to overhaul the agency’s governance.
D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), one of the earliest and strongest supporters of annual dedicated funding, was not convinced that a board overhaul was a priority. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) thought some of the proposed revisions would require a change in the Metro Compact — or governing document — a process that typically takes years.
“We’ve always said that funding and governance must go hand in hand,” said Joseph McAndrew, director of transportation policy at the Greater Washington Partnership. “We’ve achieved a historic funding deal, but the work on fixing Metro’s governance structure is not finished.”
Even though the reforms fell short of expectations, legislators, business groups and transit advocates expressed confidence that Metro will not waste the new money it’s receiving — at least in the short term.
That’s partly because of the 3 percent subsidy cap and partly because of faith in the leadership of General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld.
“I give Paul and his team a lot of compliments,” said Virginia Del. Timothy D. Hugo (R-Fairfax), who played a key role in shepherding the funding bill through the GOP-controlled legislature. “You finally have confidence that somebody is trying to turn around this battleship.”
But there’s concern that Wiedefeld’s successors may not be so responsible, especially without changes to ensure that the board remains committed to oversight and to the agency’s overall needs rather than to individual board members’ parochial political interests.
As a result, advocates are wasting no time launching a campaign for Virginia, Maryland and the District to act to adopt reforms that fell by the wayside this year. MetroNow, a broad coalition of business, nonprofit and advocacy groups, has already scheduled a meeting later this month with Virginia Transportation Secretary Shannon Valentine to push for governance changes.
“We have a good start [and] the question is what do you do long term,” said Michael Forehand, senior vice president of government and public affairs of the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce, a member of MetroNow. “You want to make sure that . . . the further we get away from this momentous achievement, that we put in procedures and plans to make sure we don’t lose the momentum on this.”
Maryland, Virginia and the District haven’t quite put the final touches on three separate bills that together raise the $500 million a year for Metro, but they’re very close.
The Virginia and Maryland legislatures have each passed funding bills, and Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) and Hogan have said they’ll sign them.
The Virginia General Assembly will vote Wednesday on whether to raise two taxes in Northern Virginia or tap existing transportation funds to raise about $30 million of the state’s $154 million contribution to the plan. Metro will get the money, either way.
Maryland’s share of the $500 million is set to be $167 million.
The three jurisdictions contribute different portions according to a Metro formula based on factors including population and the number of Metro stations.
Bowser signed a bill last week to give Metro $178.5 million, although the D.C. Council won’t act until May on tax increases to raise some of the money. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said the body would approve the levies.
Each of the three bills deals differently with governance. Virginia’s sets the most conditions, with the District setting the fewest and Maryland in the middle.
Virginia’s bill is the only one that would change the way the board functions as a whole. It specifies that the panel’s eight alternate members may not vote or participate in board meetings, except when one of the principal members from their jurisdiction is absent.
If any of the alternates participates in violation of the Virginia provision, then Virginia will withhold a fifth of its capital and operating subsidies to Metro. That would blow a sizable hole in Metro’s finances.
The aim is to streamline the work of the board, whose large size has drawn criticism.
But the result may be awkward, as the alternates would continue to play a key role in most of the board’s committee work, but have no role when the full board meets.
“This is somewhat chaotic,” Metro Board Chairman Jack Evans said. “It’s kind of funny if it just means that eight people have to sit in the audience” at full board meetings, he said.
The more radical proposal to temporarily replace the 16-member board with a five-member reform board was endorsed by numerous advocates including the Federal City Council and a study by former U.S. transportation secretary Ray LaHood.
It foundered partly because Hogan and others said the plan would require a change in the Metro Compact. Revising the document, which spells out how the agency is governed and financed, is a lengthy and cumbersome process.
Lawmakers in Virginia decided to hold off seeking such a change rather than risk a lengthy delay in procuring additional funding that Metro needs now.
In addition, Bowser felt from the start that Metro’s main challenge was a lack of funding, rather than the board’s size or other governance obstacles.
“I never thought personally that those were the real problems that needed to be solved at Metro,” she said.
One change that appears likely to have considerable impact is the 3 percent ceiling on annual growth in the agency’s operating subsidies.
Virginia’s bill says the state will slash its contributions for Metro’s capital and operations by 35 percent if the agency asks for more than a 3 percent increase in its operating subsidy in a given year. Some exceptions are granted, such as for increased spending related to expansion of the system or legal judgments.
After Virginia included the provision, Maryland followed suit with a similar measure in its bill. It also sets the 3 percent annual cap on Metro’s subsidy request, but in case of violation it withholds 35 percent only of the state’s contribution to operating funds, rather than cutting its capital subsidy as well.
The District has not included such a provision, but the risk of losing subsidies from Virginia and Maryland was seen as guaranteeing that Metro would respect the 3 percent cap.
The measure falls short of proposals to reduce Metro’s labor costs by ending mandatory binding arbitration of contract disputes. Such arbitration — which is seen as favoring unions — was considered unrealistic. That’s partly because it would have required changing the compact, and partly because of opposition from Democrats throughout the region.
In addition, the LaHood study found that Metro’s overall labor costs were roughly in line with those of similar transit systems.
Even without going after the unions, many observers saw the 3 percent ceiling as an effective way to hold Metro accountable for restraining its spending — at least for now.
“It’s a pretty rigorous standard,” said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, which is part of MetroNow. “It will certainly require the agency to pay a lot of attention to detail to operate more efficiently, reduce costs and, on the other side, attract more riders and farebox revenue.”