With the Metro board under fire for what many say is dysfunction and perceived parochialism in its ranks, a feud between the jurisdictions comprising it may be its undoing.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) on Wednesday threatened to push for the board to be disbanded if Chairman Jack Evans follows through with a threat to block the transfer of land Maryland needs for its light-rail Purple Line.
Evans has said he will exercise a rarely used veto to halt the transfer if Maryland board members object to a board committee restructuring favored by the District.
The Metro board is expected to vote on the land swap at its Thursday meeting.
Hogan, who has repeatedly called for Evans to resign in recent weeks, accused the board chairman of “extortion” and said if District board members block the land swap, Maryland will back efforts to “disband” the panel.
Hogan supports a separate board restructuring proposal expected to come soon from former U.S. transportation secretary Ray LaHood that would oust the current panel and replace it with a five-member reform board for three years to give the region time to come up with a long-term solution for the agency’s governance and financial problems.
“Let me just say this. It seems as if the chairman of the [Metro] board is attempting to practice extortion against the state of Maryland,” Hogan said as he unveiled a $50 million traffic signal optimization plan in Hanover, Md. “We would take serious action if this extortion attempt actually took place tomorrow, but anybody involved in that should be ashamed of themselves, and we’re not going to allow it to happen.”
Hogan said Maryland specifically objects to a provision of the committee restructuring that would potentially lengthen Evans’s term by six months.
Evans, who declined to respond to Hogan’s comments directly, said the proposal being voted on Thursday would not lengthen his term. Thursday’s vote, he said, would simply streamline the board’s committee structure and allow for new chairs to take the helms. A draft of the proposal is available online, but could be amended ahead of the vote.
“All I can say is that extending the chair’s term is not part of the resolution tomorrow,” Evans said.
Separately, in an interview with WTOP-FM on Wednesday, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) called for Evans to “knock it off” with what he called the “crazy, insane” rhetoric.
“Talking about holding funds back from Maryland is not appropriate,” McAuliffe said. “To have this conversation is not helpful. We’ve got to fix Metro. We’ve to like act like adults in the room.”
McAuliffe called for the board to be shrunk to a five-member panel, consisting of members from each of the jurisdictions that support Metro, along with an elected chair, as LaHood is proposing.
“We have got to get to a five-person board, nonpolitical, for three years, to come in to make the hard, tough decisions to get this going,” McAuliffe said.
The committee restructuring proposal, which Evans has said has support from the majority of the board, would shrink the number of board subcommittees from seven to four, while allowing alternate board members to head committees. In Maryland’s view, only voting members should serve as committee heads.
“So, I would say that’s not going to happen, and if any of those things were to happen tomorrow, then I would then be willing to go along with my colleagues, Eleanor Holmes Norton from D.C., who said the entire board should be disbanded, along with Terry McAuliffe who said the same thing, in Virginia, and former Secretary Ray LaHood who did a study,” Hogan said, referring to Evans’s threat.
Metro board member Malcolm Augustine, who represents Maryland, said there are continued discussions to smooth out the clashes between the jurisdictions regarding the committee restructuring as well as the Purple Line land swap.
“I’m still talking to my colleagues from the state, and on the board, to try to come to some sort of an agreement that does not delay the Purple Line. That’s what is most important,” Augustine said.
Augustine, who is an alternate member of the board and thus not expected to vote at Thursday’s meeting, declined to comment on Hogan’s statement about disbanding the board. Still, he said he did not agree with Evans’s attempts to fuse the issue of board governance with the prospect of further delaying the construction of the Purple Line.
After all, Augustine said, though a board committee restructuring might be beneficial, the benefits would be relatively minor. The existing structure of the board does not prevent members of the board from properly performing their jobs, he argued, and certainly isn’t enough of a problem to risk the future of the Purple Line.
“These are two separate issues that should be discussed — but not in tandem,” Augustine said.
As for the concerns of other board members, who recently threw up potential roadblocks to the land swap proposed by Maryland, Augustine said he believes that there is “a growing level of comfort” among those members that Metro is getting a fair deal in its land exchange with the state.
Previously, some of those members — including Robert Lauby and Steve McMillin, who represent the federal government — said they worried that the cash-strapped transit agency might be underpaid in the land exchange.
Under the proposed deal, Metro would transfer the land rights to properties at New Carrollton, College Park and Silver Spring Metro stations that are vital to the construction of the Purple Line, scheduled to begin early next month. In all, those properties are valued somewhere between $24 million and $37 million.
Maryland, in turn, would give Metro the land rights to a 450-space parking lot and a plot of land, valued together at $17.1 million.
At the board committee meeting two weeks ago, some members said they were concerned about the multimillion-dollar difference in value of the properties. McMillin insisted that the board members have a fiduciary responsibility to ensure that Metro gets its money’s worth — and that it’s not the board’s job to expedite the Purple Line project.
Augustine said he’s pushing for the land swap to be approved by the board without the amendment that was added at that last meeting — additional language that called for Metro and Maryland to further negotiate over the “fair compensation” of the value of the land.
Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld is also advocating for a “clean” version of the proposal, without the amendment. At the previous board meeting, he argued that the Purple Line project will be a boon for Metro, and that quibbling with the specific value of each parcel of land included in the swap could ultimately damage Metro’s own interests. In recent days, Wiedefeld has reached out to members of the board, urging them to say yes to the deal without delay.
Martine Powers contributed to this report.