METRO'S FINANCIAL prospects are dire, as is its long-term outlook for adequate maintenance, dependable service and basic safety, without a major infusion of steady new revenue. Despite that fact, Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie is dodging, ducking and deflecting questions of how to put Metro on a firm financial footing. His Democratic opponent, Ralph Northam, has been somewhat more forthright, though fuzzy on the details.
Some 300,000 Virginians depend for their daily commute on Metro, whose health underpins not only the federal workforce but also that of thousands of other public and private employers, as well as the region's future. Metro is key to Northern Virginia, which, as the state's most economically dynamic region, is critical to the commonwealth's larger fortunes.
Mr. Gillespie, who lives in Fairfax County, knows that — he says he's a Metro rider, "not a Metro basher," and suggests it would help if the transit system had "a governor from Northern Virginia who understands the challenges." But he prefers to talk about everything else Metro needs — in particular, cost-cutting and more rational governance. When pressed, he says those are preconditions for any additional funding. "We cannot throw good money after bad," he told us.
What nonsense. The main cause for Metro's steady descent into its current state of disrepair — the pitiable state of tracks and infrastructure that triggered the surge maintenance program known as SafeTrack — was years of underfunding. Metro, the country's only major transit system without a dedicated source of cash, has been a beggar, relying on annual appropriations from its eight jurisdictional funders. "We cannot maintain this into the future," says Paul J. Wiedefeld, Metro's respected general manager.
Now, with Mr. Wiedefeld warning that service, safety and reliability will deteriorate rapidly without an additional $500 million annually in capital revenue, Mr. Gillespie is looking for every excuse to perpetuate the very underfunding that led to Metro's crisis.
It's not that he's wrong that the system needs governance reforms, or that its cost structure and labor contracts could be streamlined to identify savings — though Mr. Wiedefeld has slashed service, eliminated hundreds of jobs and improved management significantly in the past two years. It's that by making those reforms a precondition for additional funding, Mr. Gillespie would enable a future of infinitely movable goal posts — vague metrics that Metro will never manage to meet to the satisfaction of Richmond.
Mr. Northam also stresses reforms in transparency and accountability, and he balks at discussing specific funding mechanisms. His website is notably opaque, saying only that Metro needs "necessary changes to make the system more safe and accountable." In contrast with Mr. Gillespie, however, the Democrat has at least signaled an openness to the reform Metro most needs. "Without . . . a dedicated revenue source," he said in an online forum in the spring, "any other reforms will not be enough."
That is the plain truth. Mr. Northam has uttered it. Mr. Gillespie has not.