The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Maryland joins Virginia in proposing talks to revise the Metro Compact

The push to reform Metro’s governance and financing is gaining a new backer, as the Maryland General Assembly prepares to join Virginia in formally proposing talks to revise the Metro Compact, legislators said Tuesday.

Two Montgomery County lawmakers have inserted language in the Maryland budget that is similar – but not identical – to a provision already enacted in Richmond regarding the compact, which spells out how Metro is governed and financed. Both states would require top-level talks among the two states, the District and the federal government on restructuring the transit agency.

Maryland’s version is more liberal than Virginia’s, because it calls explicitly for discussions on dedicated funding, such as through a sales tax. It also omits Richmond’s requirement for talks on labor costs.

Democrats control both houses of Maryland’s legislature, while Republicans dominate both chambers in Richmond.

The Maryland House has approved the budget language, and the Senate is expected to do so soon.

“Metro is crucial for our region and it is important that Maryland’s reform priorities be on the table along with those of Virginia and D.C.,” Del. Marc Korman (D-Montgomery) said. He and Sen. Brian Feldman (D-Montgomery) played leading roles in adding the provision to the budget.

Maryland’s action lends strength to the campaign to rewrite the compact to address Metro’s safety, financial and reliability problems. The compact, approved in 1966, created Metro’s complicated governing structure and funding formulas.

An influential District business group, the Federal City Council, has spearheaded an effort to revise the compact. Congress also is considering legislation that would force the three jurisdictions to change it.

Supporters of changing the compact say structural reforms are needed to streamline the work of Metro’s cumbersome 16-member board, to adjust labor policies to save money, and to create a new funding mechanism to pay for new railcars and other equipment, and for maintenance of track and other facilities.

Opponents say any effort to revise the document risks getting bogged down in partisan and parochial disputes among the three jurisdictions.

The differences between the Maryland and Virginia legislation illustrate the tension.

The Maryland bill calls for talks among top transportation officials on two subjects not mentioned by Virginia: funding by local jurisdictions, including potential dedicated funding, and protecting and improving paratransit service. Virginia Republicans are wary of proposals for dedicated funding for Metro, for fear it will lead to new taxes.

By contrast, the Virginia law calls for talks on “labor costs and labor relations,” a response to Metro critics who complain that Metro’s labor costs are too high. Maryland’s bill does not refer to labor issues.

Both versions call for talks on five topics: the legal and organizational structure of Metro; the qualifications and terms of service of Metro board members; the agency’s unfunded pension liability of nearly $3 billion; safety; and ensuring that Metro’s financial and operational performance is “at least as efficient as its closest comparable transit systems in the United States.”

In a related development, the Maryland General Assembly has approved a bill creating the long-delayed Metro Safety Commission. Gov. Larry Hogan (R) is expected to sign it in the next few days.
The U.S. Department of Transportation is withholding millions of dollars of federal transit aid from the District, Maryland and Virginia until the commission is set up. The process of establishing it, and getting it certified by the Federal Transit Administration, is expected to take until late this year or early 2018.

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) has already signed a bill authorizing the commission. The District has passed its bill, as well, but the D.C. Council still has to take a routine vote to correct two minor wording errors so that all three versions are identical.

Congress also has to approve the commission.

The new commission will take over safety oversight of Metro from the FTA. The federal agency took the unprecedented step of assuming responsibility for Metro safety in 2015, after federal officials determined that the former body responsible, the Tri-State Oversight Committee, was inadequate.