As Metro officials and transit advocates try to drum up support for a dedicated revenue source for the struggling transit system, they want business leaders to do more to convince lawmakers that there is public demand for more federal and regional funding.
At a panel discussion Wednesday morning, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said the people with the most power to sway lawmakers are not transit officials like Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld, or even members of the region’s congressional delegation, but rather executives of companies headquartered in the Washington region.
“I’m still baffled why the business community has not been more public,” Norton said at the panel hosted by Bloomberg Government. “The business community in this region has prospered largely because of Metro — and has the clout with Congress that no member has, that Paul doesn’t have. And I think they could help us … could help Congress understand the importance of Metro for the economy of this region, and for the federal government itself.”
It was a point echoed by Wiedefeld, who told the group he was “fairly” optimistic about the prospect of a regional dedicated revenue source for Metro — largely because he’s made it clear to regional officials what to expect if Metro doesn’t find a way to pay for long-term capital investment and repairs: more fare hikes, service cuts and desperate pleas to raise the annual subsidies provided by each jurisdiction.
“The business community … you really need to look at how many of the cranes in this region are within roughly a quarter-mile of a station. They’re betting on this system working like it did in the past,” Wiedefeld said. “So I think it’s very important for the business community to get behind this and deal with these issues … It takes that level of effort to get this across the finish line.”
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Former U.S. transportation secretary Ray LaHood underscored the urgency of Wiedefeld’s call to action. LaHood was commissioned by Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) earlier this year to conduct a study of Metro’s financial needs and governance. That study is due out in the fall.
“Our study will not be a big, voluminous report. There are many of those floating around Washington,” LaHood said.
Instead, he said, he hopes his study will provide a path for common ground between McAuliffe, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R), D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao.
“If those four principled individuals could agree on a path forward, then I think we can move Metro uphill and forward,” LaHood said. “In the absence of that, Paul, Eleanor and others frankly have a mess on their hands. … What we need is a commitment from these four jurisdictions that they’ll be committed to taking Metro to the next level, to a higher level.”
The panel discussion came as local leaders continue to consider strategies on how to provide Metro with the annual $500 million in reliable funding that Wiedefeld says he needs to be able borrow the money for capital investments in the system. Some officials have raised the prospect of a regional 1-cent Metro-specific sales tax; others have suggested a property tax on homes and businesses within a quarter-mile or a half-mile of Metro stations, many of which have seen their property value increase precipitously because of their proximity to transit.
And more recently, some lawmakers have said they don’t believe it’s wise, or even possible, for Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia to agree on the same kind of revenue source. Instead, they say, the three jurisdictions should individually decide how to come up with their share of the money.
Norton said she’s not opposed to that idea. But all three revenue sources must be sustainable in the long term, she said, so that they can be used for bonds.
“This is the only transit system that has to cross three lines. Therefore we may end up with some kind of porridge,” Norton said. “But it’s got to be dedicated porridge. I think we’re getting to the point of desperation.”