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Congress’s spending bill includes $150M for Metro, ups transit benefit for commuters

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md,) center, speaks about the Metro smoke incident on Jan. 12, 2015, as Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), left, Sen. Ben Cardin ( D-Md.), center right, and D.C. Del.  Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) wait to speak, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2015. One woman was killed and more than 80 were sent to hospitals with smoke inhalation after a subway train filled with smoke inside a tunnel near the busy L’Enfant Plaza station in downtown Washington. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)
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Two bits of good news for Metro were included in Congress’s $1.1 trillion spending bill and companion tax package that were unveiled Wednesday and expected to win passage this week.

[Here’s what made it into Congress’s big spending and tax bills]

The transit agency will get the full $150 million in federal funding it has in previous years. And tucked away in the $650 billion tax package was an increase in the pre-tax transit benefit —  to $255 a month from its $130 a month. Metro has partially blamed the reduction in the subsidy, which was cut in 2014,  for its decline in ridership.

The fight for Metro funding proved to be a difficult one this year. House Republicans included only $100 million in funding their version of the appropriations bill. The D.C.-area delegation however, fought the cut arguing that despite its troubles, the transit agency needed the money in order to turn itself around after a disastrous year that began with a fatal smoke incident in January that killed one rider and sickened scores of others.

But the money will come with strings. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx will have to approve how Metro spends its money and ensure that the federal dollars are spent on safety priorities that have been outlined by the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Transit Administration.

“While I am beyond frustrated with Metro, I will not waiver in my support for federal funding for the troubled system because so many of my constituents rely upon it every day,” said Sen. Barbara Mikulski, (D-Md.) “For the last seven years, I have exercised my Congressional oversight of the transit system by including bill and report language requiring strict oversight by the U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary on how these taxpayer dollars are spent.”

Mikulski says full funding for Metro will include strings

Since 2008, Congress has annually appropriated $150 million for Metro’s capital improvement budget under the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act (PRIIA), which designated $1.5 billion for Metro over 10 years. Maryland, Virginia and the District matched the $150 million  each year.

“I am pleased that the federal government will fulfill its statutory obligation to provide a dollar-for-dollar match in combination with Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia for Metro’s budget,” said Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.).

But Comstock also expressed concern about Metro’s management.

“In recent years, Metro has seen a steady increase in safety lapses and general inefficiencies,” said Comstock. “From the fatal smoke incident earlier this year, to the Red Line crash in 2009, commuters from the 10th District and elsewhere are increasingly concerned about using Metrorail.  Metro needs a cultural change – a top-to-bottom overhaul in terms of its structure, its facilities, its accountability, and its safety mechanisms. ”

Meanwhile, the increase in the commuter benefit is good news for Metro and riders. The provision to increase the pre-tax amount commuters could set aside was championed by Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-NY) and had big support from Democrats and Republicans in the House, our Post colleagues Mike DeBonis and Kelsey Snell report. Transit advocates have long grumbled that pre-tax parking benefits were not reduced during the 2014 budget battle and that the two should be treated equally.

Metro blames drop in commuter subsidy for declining ridership

Metro General Manager Paul J. Weidefeld thanked the delegation for pushing for full funding.

“We are very grateful for the inclusion of Metro’s $150 million in the Omnibus Appropriations Act, which provides the critical funding necessary to ensure our safety projects continue without interruption,” he said.   “In addition, we deeply appreciate that our riders will get a better commuter benefit thanks to language in the tax legislation that would set the transit benefit at the same level as those who drive and park.”