The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Election is reminder why federal takeover of Metro might not be what backers hope

Metro trains. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

Just a couple weeks ago, Metro Board Chairman Jack Evans was endorsing the idea of a federal takeover of Metro.

Evans later appeared to be reconsidering. But he wasn’t the only public official who gave the proposal a surprisingly warm welcome. The head of an Advisory Neighborhood Commission made a persuasive case in Greater Greater Washington for why he reluctantly thought a federal takeover wasn’t such a bad idea.

And yet the Dewey-defeats-Truman ending of the 2016 presidential election campaign offers another view of why the habit of relying on the federal government to do everything isn’t always wise.

The idea of handing over Metro to Uncle Sam was floated when a Democrat – and, thus, presumably a friend of mass transit — was in the White House. Polls suggested his successor would be the same.

But it hasn’t worked out that way, and now the majesty of the federal government is about to be handed to Republicans who, in general, hold strikingly different views about mass transit.

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This is not to assume that President-elect Donald Trump and the incoming Republican administration will be hostile to Metro and mass transit. It’s quite possible that, given the president-elect’s victory speech that pledged to “rebuild our infrastructure,” Trump and congressional Republicans might treat Metro with the respect deserving of the capital’s subway.

But it’s also quite possible that the skepticism many Republicans have for mass transit — or at least the belief that gas tax funds should not be diverted into high-speed rail, bike lanes and similar projects instead of road projects  — could mean a radically different appraisal of Metro’s problems. It might mean standing firm on current funding levels until reforms are made or reviving talk of privatization  – and that’s probably not the sort of thing many Washington-area residents have in mind as an acceptable outcome of a federal takeover.

Metro was meant to be governed as a regional institution from its inception. Congress gave its blessing to the compact between the District, Maryland and Virginia, as required by the Constitution in Article I, Section 10. But it was up the three local jurisdictions to run it, and at the time they jealously guarded their regional prerogative. The first two words of the agency’s name – Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) – were chosen because they had less of a federal ring to them, according to George Mason University professor Zachary M. Schrag’s The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro.

Montgomery County Council member Roger Berliner still thinks along these lines. He strongly believes it’s up to the DMV to fix Metro and has spoken out against a federal takeover.

“I was offended that the chairman of the board was basically saying, ‘Gosh we can’t do this. We need someone else to do this for us,’ ” Berliner said in an interview Friday. “I do think that this is our fundamental responsibility as a region.”

That doesn’t mean Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda), who is also chairman of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, thinks Uncle Sam has done his part. He believes the federal government, whose workforce relies on Metro, should do more to help the system – but as “as a true partner, not an overlord.”

Meantime, Berliner said, Metro’s regional stakeholders ought to focus on what they can do, beginning with making changes to the way the agency is governed. Among other things, Berliner said he would like to alter the Metro board’s jurisdictional veto–which, as it happens, was invoked just last year by Maryland to kill a pension initiative. It gives too much power to one jurisdiction, Berliner said.

Whatever the case, the idea that the federal government has a monopoly on competence – and even funding – is a copout. Plus, the proposal seemed strangely timed.

Metro sank into crisis despite decades of warnings.

Yes, Metro is burning — sometimes literally. But its highly publicized disasters and mini-disasters have also  renewed discussion  about better regional cooperation, including the creation of a dedicated funding source. The trial balloon for a takeover also went up before its reform-minded general manager, Paul J. Wiedefeld, had logged a full year on the job.

“We have this moment where we have a really strong general manager and a growing census that dedicated funding is a necessity,” Berliner said.

Although Election Day stunned the Washington region, whose city and suburbs went all in for Hillary Clinton, it wasn’t the end of the world. It was, however,  a reminder that, as the Framers figured out nearly three centuries ago, the idea of investing too much power in one place can lead to unanticipated and perhaps unwanted results when that power changes hands.

This could be the moment the Washington region decides it has to work harder to put Metro back on track — and with an assist from Uncle Sam, but not a takeover.

“It doesn’t mean it’s easy work,” Berliner said. “It is our responsibility. It is a region. We have simply have to roll up our sleeves and do the hard work that is necessary.  .  .This is ours to do.”

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