WITH EVERY passing day, chances seem to recede for a long-term fix to Metro’s vexing systemic problems. Funding, governance and labor relations seem not only mired in dysfunction but also increasingly immune to reform. Even as a regional consensus builds around the urgency of Metro’s ills, there is shockingly little agreement on the right strategy to address them.
The latest symptom of Metro’s dismal prospects came in the form of remarks from one of the nation’s most respected mass transit experts, former U.S. transportation secretary Ray LaHood, a onetime Republican congressman who also served in President Barack Obama’s Cabinet. Mr. LaHood, enlisted by Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) to diagnose what ails Metro and prescribe a path forward, is expected to make his final report later this month, but he has already called in public for shrinking Metro’s 16-member board to a five-member “reform” body.
That recommendation was met with hostility from some Northern Virginia officials, who argue that a shrunken board would eliminate representation for localities that provide funding for a sizable chunk of Metro’s budget.
There’s a good point to be made — and Mr. LaHood has made it — that the current Metro board is bloated, riven by parochialism and incapable of forging the systemic overhaul the transit system badly needs. As Mr. LaHood put it, it is a “joke” that the 16 board members include eight “alternates,” and that representatives of any one of the three regional stakeholders — Virginia, Maryland and the District — can veto proposals favored by the other two, including fare hikes and the budget. “It’s not the way you run a system!” he told the group.
He’s right, but the Metro board, much as it needs restructuring, is not the main issue. Money is.
The transit system desperately needs at least $500 million in additional annual capital funding to spend on equipment and upgrades. In addition, it risks losing its $150 million annual federal subsidy, set to expire in 2018. It remains alone among major American transit systems in lacking an earmarked, ongoing revenue source, rendering each year’s budget, to say nothing of long-term planning, a question of hopes and prayers.
It remains possible that Mr. LaHood will include specific recommendations in his report on how to put Metro on firmer financial footing. Yet from his recent public comments, it’s not clear he will. He seemed to suggest that funding questions should be left to the new streamlined board — if one can even be fashioned. Yet why would five board members be any more successful than 16 in garnering the hundreds of millions of dollars that Metro needs if it is to avoid slipping further into obsolescence?
Metro’s general manager, Paul J. Wiedefeld, has cleaned up the system’s act to the extent possible. He has slashed staffing, improved safety procedures, insisted on accountability and mounted an unprecedented campaign to repair tracks. Yet without more money, Mr. Wiedefeld cannot transform a degraded system into a high-functioning one. Only money can do that, and Mr. LaHood can play a valuable role in helping to show the region how best to get it.
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