Robert J. Flanagan is chairman of the Federal City Council. W. Edward Walter is vice chairman of the Federal City Council.
Metro is suffering.
Physically, Metro is suffering from years of deferred maintenance that has threatened its safety and reliability. Financially, Metro is suffering from an increasing budget deficit and decreasing ridership, which threaten its ongoing viability. Operationally, it is clear to all who come in contact with the system that it can and must be managed better. Most critical, organizationally Metro is suffering from an existential problem as old as Metro itself: The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority Compact, which governs the operation of the Metro system, is fundamentally flawed.
It is hard to fix Metro when its member jurisdictions can veto productive changes or well-conceived management plans are not effectively executed in the field. It is hard to persuade stakeholders — passengers and jurisdictions alike — to continue to invest in Metro given concerns about runaway operating and capital costs, coupled with weak controls on spending and quality. Without making extreme changes, we will perpetuate the degradation of the system, its safety and its benefit to the region.
The Post suggested the solution is a federal control board. That’s a viable option. However, just because this approach can be pursued doesn’t mean that it should be — at least not right away.
There is another solution that offers the region a chance to maintain autonomy and also mitigates the risks associated with a federally controlled system: Congress could withdraw its consent for the WMATA Compact. Drafted properly, the legislation would give regional leaders the opportunity to make critical amendments to the WMATA Compact without requiring a federal takeover.
WMATA was created by an interstate compact among Virginia, Maryland and the District. The federal government is not a signatory to the compact. Withdrawing congressional consent could render the compact, and therefore WMATA, unconstitutional. That would present an opportunity for it to be reborn.
We recommend this legislation include:
● appropriate amendments to the existing compact designed to improve funding, governance and management of WMATA;
● a time period for the parties to agree upon and implement these changes required in the amendments;
● withdrawal of congressional consent to the compact and the establishment of a control board (with powers similar to the D.C. Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Authority) to operate WMATA in the event that the compact parties fail to agree upon the changes to the compact.
The revised compact would abolish the existing board and reestablish a smaller board using criteria based on experience and expertise in transit or logistics. It would also redefine the role of the board and limit its focus to the most critical issues facing Metro. The revised compact would finalize the establishment of a federally compliant Metro Safety Commission and would outline a process for future compact revisions. It would remove the mandatory-binding-arbitration provision associated with union contract negotiations. Finally, the compact would require the jurisdictions to collectively address their commitment to provide dedicated funding for WMATA, with the achievement of both cost accountability and funding parameters as thresholds for the provision of additional funding from the federal government.
Some public and private stakeholders rejected the option of a federal control board as a distraction. There has been much good work done to bring stakeholders together, benchmark Metro against other transit systems and identify a framework for implementing a regional funding structure, and there is value in this effort. However, the challenges are too vast, intrinsic and complex to believe that money alone will solve what ails Metro. Indeed, many fear that more dollars without radical restructure is putting good money after bad.
We believe that the withdrawal of congressional consent for the compact would be an effective means of giving regional leaders an opportunity to a restructure WMATA and its financial obligations. It would require careful and complex coordination among the governors of Maryland and Virginia, the D.C. mayor and federal stakeholders, and we strongly encourage the introduction of legislation that would allow regional leaders a chance to lead this effort.