METRO WAS justly applauded for its relatively smooth performance last month during the presidential inauguration and, especially, the Women’s March on Washington, which produced the second-busiest day of ridership in the transit system’s history. The price of that success went less remarked: In the process of handling the torrent of passengers that weekend — laying on extra staff, police and trains — the agency may have lost money, as Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld recently acknowledged.
There aren’t many silver linings in the financial cloud shrouding Metro, the nation’s second-busiest subway system, whose chronic problems with safety, reliability and service have depressed ridership and, consequently, left a daunting shortfall in projected revenue.
Democrats are demanding better performance and reforms in governance in return for more funding. Republicans, who control Congress as well as the legislature in Virginia, a key stakeholder, say they want the improvement and reforms before considering any new funding. Those competing approaches are reflected in bills, one submitted last week, one expected soon, by a Democrat and a Republican from the Washington region’s congressional delegation.
The measure submitted by the Democrat, Rep. John Delaney of suburban Maryland, seems a sensible, financially modest step toward nudging Metro onto a path of sustainable recovery. The one being drafted by a Republican, Rep. Barbara Comstock of Northern Virginia, may also have constructive elements; in the absence of additional funding, however, it starves a system already wasting away from lack of revenue.
Both bills use the threat of a nuclear option — destroying Metro’s governing compact and, in the bargain, the funding structure on which it depends, plus yanking $150 million in annual federal subsidy — as leverage to force changes in the transit system’s governing structure. That’s a blunt instrument and not necessarily a credible one: Is Congress really prepared to blow up Metro, upon which Congress itself depends for its daily workforce?
Still, governance reforms are critical, including enhanced flexibility for management to control costs and rein in unions, as well as a streamlined board of directors consisting of transit, finance and management experts rather than local politicians. Along with that stick, Mr. Delaney’s bill would provide a carrot: an additional $750 million in federal funding for Metro over 10 years, to be matched by the system’s local partners: Maryland, Virginia and the District.
It’s fair to demand management improvements, governance reforms and a workable long-term recovery plan at Metro. What’s not workable is to set goalposts for the transit agency that could recede indefinitely before Congress comes up with more funding. Already, Metro is facing huge projected revenue shortfalls — more than $660 million for operating and long-range needs in the fiscal year starting in 2019 alone.
Metro is scrambling to downsize its workforce and slash service to balance its budget — measures that will only drive more passengers away and further depress revenue. Short of a new and dedicated source of local funding and substantial new infusion of dollars from Congress, the agency’s death spiral will accelerate.