A spending plan released by a House committee this week would halve a proposed $150 million federal contribution to Metro in the transit agency’s next fiscal year, a reduction that the region’s congressional delegation said would “only exacerbate the operations and safety issues” afflicting the transit agency.
Since 2008, Congress has annually appropriated $150 million for Metro’s capital improvement budget under the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act, known as PRIIA, which designated $1.5 billion for Metro over 10 years. Maryland, Virginia and the District have matched the $150 million in PRIIA money each year, contributing $50 million apiece for capital improvements.
However, the House Appropriations Committee unveiled a transportation spending bill Tuesday that would give Metro only $75 million in PRIIA funds for the fiscal year that begins July 1. The plan drew immediate criticism from members of the Washington area’s congressional delegation.
“Providing anything less than the federal commitment of $150 million would jeopardize rider safety and the successful partnership with Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia to fund the purchase of new rail cars and vital safety improvements throughout the system,” eight House members said in a statement.
“It would be shortsighted for Congress to threaten to unravel this partnership given the federal government’s unique relationship with and responsibility to Metro,” the statement said.
Republican members of Congress have proposed slashing Metro’s capital funding before. But this is the first time that such a reduction has been written into the initial draft of an appropriations bill.
Opponents of the reduction will have several opportunities during the appropriations process to get the PRIIA money restored. However, with Republicans controlling both houses of Congress from the first time since the $1.5 billion PRIIA deal was crafted in 2008, it could be more difficult for the largely Democratic delegation from the Washington area to secure the full $150 million for Metro.
“It really feels like a betrayal of trust,” Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) said. “It also is a failure to recognize that Metro is the nation’s transit system. How does Washington, D.C., the capital of the free world, run without a significant, sustained investment in Metro?”
Off the House floor after Tuesday’s votes, Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) buttonholed Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), chairman of the appropriations subcommittee on transportation, and urged him to reconsider the cut. Diaz-Balart told Connolly that he knows that the issue “has to be addressed,” but he did not specifically commit to restoring the PRIIA money.
“This is a very long process, and this is just the first part of that very long process,” Diaz-Balart said in an interview. “I’m hearing these concerns. … We’re going to have ample opportunity to look at all these issues.”
Among other capital upgrades, Metro has begun the process of buying 748 new rail cars, about 300 of which would be used to replace the oldest cars in the fleet. Those old cars 1000-series cars date to the mid-1970s. They were deemed by federal safety investigators to be outmoded and not “crashworthy” after two of them were involved in a 2009 Red Line crash that killed nine people.
A raft of other Metro infrastructure and safety problems were exposed by a fatal incident Jan. 12 in which an electrical malfunction involving track-based power cables filled a Yellow Line tunnel with noxious fumes, sickening scores of subway riders. One of the passengers died of smoke inhalation.
“Every dollar of this funding is crucial for the safety and reliability improvements of Metro,” spokesman Dan Stessel said. He said Metro officials are “working with our entire [congressional] delegation to restore the full $150 million annual funding committed to Metro in 2008.”
Not only would the committee’s spending plan cut Metro’s PRIIA funding in half, it also would set conditions for the disbursement of the reduced funds.
Citing a federal audit last year that revealed financial-management problems in the transit agency, the appropriations bill would require the Department of Transportation to withhold PRIIA funds from Metro unless the agency shows it “is making significant progress in eliminating material weaknesses, significant deficiencies, and minor control deficiencies identified” by the audit.
To receive PRIIA money, Metro also would have to show that it “has placed the highest priority on those investments that will improve the safety of the system,” the spending plan says.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) called the proposed cut “horrible,” but said he is confident the money will be restored, even with the Senate in Republican hands. “Everybody here has tons of staff who rely on [Metro] every day to get to work,” he said. “If they just listen to their own staff … I think they would see it’s a really bad idea.”