Three months ago, when Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) took a tour of the Silver Line with Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld, the former vice-presidential candidate was positively cheery about the potential for a partnership with President Trump on a big-ticket infrastructure funding package.
The proposed budget released by Trump last week has tempered that idealism, at least a little.
“I never like to say I was naive,” Kaine said Monday, standing on the platform at Metro’s King Street station. “I was optimistic. … I did think he would try to tackle [infrastructure] out of the gate.”
Kaine’s comments came during a tour of the SafeTrack Surge 13 work zone, where he checked in with Wiedefeld about the progress of the track reconstruction project, and also offered thoughts on Trump’s budget proposal. Trump’s plan would increase spending on defense and homeland security — in part, by making significant cuts to several agencies, including the Department of Transportation. Among the items targeted in the DOT budget are a grant program with bipartisan support and funding for Amtrak’s long-distance routes outside of the Northeast Corridor.
The budget did not mention Metro or the $150 million in federal capital funding the transit agency receives annually from the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008. (“I’m confident … that the deal that we’ve made will be honored,” Kaine said.) But Kaine warned that the tenor of Trump’s budget doesn’t bode well for the future of the transit system — especially as the annual PRIIA allotments are scheduled to expire in two years. Metro and the region’s leaders also are seeking more federal funding for the troubled system.
“The issue that we have to look at longterm is going to be Metro, certainly after those next two down-payments are done,” Kaine said, standing next to Wiedefeld on an inbound Blue Line train. “We don’t have a deal. This delegation needs to work very hard to make sure there is a next chapter to make the investments that these guys need.”
Kaine said he plans to speak with Republican colleagues about Trump’s budget, eyeing a possible alliance on transportation issues with GOP members whose communities have benefited from the Department of Transportation’s TIGER competitive grant program — which is on the chopping block.
“I would like to try to work with the administration and others to convince them to do that [infrastructure investment] sooner rather than later,” Kaine said. “Metro could be a beneficiary of that, but not just Metro.”
Kaine’s comments came as Metro faces financial threats from multiple fronts: Trump’s budget proposal has dampened the region’s hopes for a long-term federal funding increase, but more immediate factors such as growing costs and diminishing ridership have also left Metro officials fearful that they won’t be able to find a way to cover operating costs in the budget for the 2019 fiscal year.
Metro was barely able to balance the budget for the coming year, closing the gap with a mix of subsidies from local jurisdictions, layoffs, service cuts and fare hikes. The Metro board is expected to approve the 2018 fiscal year budget Thursday.
Wiedefeld has noticeably avoided wading into political waters since he started at Metro 15 months ago. But now, as Metro officials turn their sights to the following year’s budget, he appears to be ramping up his calls for more help from the government.
Last week, at a pre-budget press conference organized by the American Public Transportation Association, Wiedefeld warned that Metro’s service disruptions could grow “longer and deeper” without an influx of outside cash.
On Monday, Wiedefeld repeated his warning.
“Clearly, you’ve heard me say recently, ’19 is going to be an issue. I cannot continue to cut service and raise fares, cut staff,” Wiedefeld said. “At some point, we have to really think about how we are going to have a stable source of funding for the system.”