In the summer of 1976, I was an intern in the Judge Advocate General’s office at the Pentagon and rode on the brand-new Metro system. For a kid of my generation, it was something straight out of “The Jetsons.” The system seemed futuristic for public transportation. Today, this same system feels more like “The Flintstones” than a grand vision of the future.
Metro’s problems resemble those faced by transit agencies, highway networks and other infrastructure systems across the United States. After winning World War II, my parents’ generation built our nation’s infrastructure. My generation allowed it to go to wrack and ruin. It’s not a legacy I want to leave behind. We should leave the system better than we found it.
Paul J. Wiedefeld, general manager of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, is undertaking a complete review and developing a plan to fix Metro. The system, its problems, the daily and long-term inconveniences and potential solutions don’t belong to any single person or government agency. Wiedefeld and Metro’s board are in place to assess the multitude of problems and present possible solutions, but the entire region — the local governments and the federal, the businesses and residents of the District, Maryland and Virginia — own Metro.
A plan to address our deferred maintenance is in development, but the need is more certain. Metro needs $25 billion over the next 10 years to run the system, address the critical safety issues identified by the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Transit Administration , and catch up on deferred maintenance. The agency also faces a $2.5 billion unfunded pension liability that it has no plan or ability to address.
To pay for all of this, the region needs to create a dedicated funding source for Metro that produces $1 billion per year — a sales tax, a property tax near Metro stations, a gas tax or a mix. A dedicated funding source should have been set up before a single track was laid.
The federal government, an equal partner in governing the system, should contribute $300 million per year to the operating budget, as do the District, Maryland and Virginia. The federal government paid two-thirds of the cost to build the system and pays about half of the capital costs, but it benefits from efficient transit for its workers in the region.
These additional funds are necessary to operate the system safely. However, money alone doesn’t fix a problem. That’s why I’m encouraged that we have Wiedefeld on board. Wiedefeld turned Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport into a first-class operation. He will give us an honest assessment of the problems and roll up his sleeves to lead the recovery.
I’ve chaired the District’s Committee on Finance and Revenue since 1999 and worked tirelessly for the resurgence of the city. Much like the partnership I built with then-Mayor Anthony Williams (D) to rebuild D.C.’s financial base, we’re building a team at Metro to get our house in order.
For years, we’ve failed to act, and that has left us with unpopular options and difficult decisions. However, if we fail to act now — if we fail to adopt a regional funding source for Metro that will produce $1 billion per year, if we fail to secure a federal contribution on the operating side of $300 million per year — Metro will remain a mediocre system that’s maybe safe and somewhat reliable instead of the world-class system that the national capital region deserves.
The writer, a Democrat, represents Ward 2 on the D.C. Council and is chairman of the board of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.