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FTA threatens to withhold $1.6B from region, including Purple Line funding, if Metro restores late-night service

The agency believes D.C. officials’ plan raises safety concerns for Metro, which is still catching up on long-ignored maintenance.

Metro is considering the restoration of late-night service hours. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

The Federal Transit Administration has threatened to withhold up to $1.6 billion in transit funding from the Washington region, including federal money for construction of Maryland’s Purple Line, if Metro restores late-night service as District officials are pushing, board members were told Thursday.

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), Metro Board Chairman Jack Evans and D.C.'s other voting board member, Corbett A. Price, are leading an effort to restore the service hours Metro cut beginning with its SafeTrack rebuilding effort in 2016, contending the agency has had ample time since then to catch up on maintenance.

But Metro argues it risks reliability and losing even more riders by shifting maintenance work to midday, which it would do if it is forced to revert to 3 a.m. closings. Meanwhile, Thursday’s revelation laid bare the implications of the push for more service hours.

“We’re staring down the barrel of a calamity for the system,” Metro board member David Horner said, briefing the panel on a memo in which the FTA spelled out the potential consequences of a reversion to the previous hours.

The FTA said its federal funding for the region hinges on an approval process for the Metrorail Safety Commission, which must be federally certified by April 15. Metro’s potential decision to revert to its old hours could hobble that process, FTA said, because its staff would need to review its budget allotments to Metro to ensure they properly align with the transit agency’s safety needs under the new hours. FTA would also need to revisit some of Metro’s previously closed corrective actions “if they were closed based on WMATA’s performance under the current operating hours,” the FTA said.

“Although, [Metro’s] Board of Directors sets Metrorail’s service hours, this is an important safety matter,” an FTA spokesman said in an email, stressing as much by underlining the final six words in the text. “The FTA’s approval of [Metro’s] proposed use of Federal funding for its Fiscal Year 2020 budget would also be delayed to ensure that funds will be used to address safety needs that may arise based on the changes in service hours."

The agency was more stern in comments read by Horner to the board.

“If service hours are expanded, FTA will stop the approval process,” for federal capital funding, Horner said, reading the FTA memo at Thursday’s board meeting.

Among the projects impacted: track and platform rebuilding, rail car overhauls and cellphone service upgrades in the Metro tunnels.

The amount of funding at risk was previously reported to be in the range of $638 million — the dollar-figure FTA had said it was authorized, at a minimum, to withhold if it does not certify the new safety oversight commission by the April deadline. That made Thursday’s figure a staggering revelation for Metro and its board.

The amount named Thursday includes $507 million from the District; $765 million from Maryland, including Purple Line money; and $282 million from Virginia.

Thursday’s discussion was the first indication that Purple Line funding could be at risk. FTA has committed $900 million in federal grants to Maryland’s 16-mile light-rail project, which is in its second year of construction. State officials have called the federal funding critical because they didn’t have enough state money to finance the line’s $2.4 billion construction. The line is being built via a public-private partnership, which includes a team of companies that is financing some of the construction costs, in addition to the state and federal funding.

“Interruption of federal funding for the Purple Line threatens the future of the largest transit P3 in the nation and our ability to deliver this vital project to the people of Maryland,” Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn said.

FTA: Metro to suffer financial hardship if it restores late-night service

Board member Clarence C. Crawford, who represents Maryland, likened the potential outcome of D.C.'s push to “calling in an airstrike on our own homes.”

In an extended plea for maintaining its 5 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. weeknight schedule, along with 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday closings, Crawford called on the board to act responsibly in its oversight of the system and not rush to prioritize service over safety. He argued that Metro needs to run through its preventive maintenance regimen and objected to a knee-jerk restoration of the 2016 service hours.

“Forcing a return to the old hours would effectively cause the loss of two entire nights of work, Friday and Saturdays,” he said. “Our very successful capital program could be adversely impacted because the projects require longer work hours . . . The safety losses could be even greater if the Federal Transit Administration withholds funding.”

Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld has been under increasing pressure to give regional leaders a more detailed timeline on when Metro might be able to restore late-night service. The initial authorization for the shorter hours was two years, beginning in July 2017. Wiedefeld said Metro has not reached a specific conclusion.

“We will start to lay out parameters of what [Metro] needs to keep this thing maintained at a certain level and inspected,” he said following the board meeting. “We will lay that out for [the board] and they can use that to determine what they get to.”

Still, he was encouraged by the discussion he heard among board members Thursday — even as potential funding threats loomed.

“I think the board really stepped up today,” Wiedefeld said. “They started to wrestle with some of these issues. There will be discussions among board members [about] what this means."

Metro officials say the set up and takedown time for weekend trackwork renders the four-hour, 3 to 7 a.m. maintenance window inefficient for inspecting and maintaining the system’s infrastructure. Crawford spelled out the downside of that scenario.

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“My guess is what we’ll potentially see is that Metro will be forced to cut service and even potentially lay off valuable employees,” he said. “We could have later hours but within those later hours we could have reduced service . . . longer wait times for trains.”

Maryland and Virginia officials have indicated they do not want to increase their subsidies for Metro’s $1.9 billion operating budget beyond the 3 percent cap set in the region’s landmark $500 million dedicated funding law, even as Wiedefeld pushes for additional service — expanded rush-hour windows, extending Yellow Line service and running all eight-car trains — aimed at generating ridership.

Virginia officials were flatly opposed to the District’s plan.

“This would be a terrible idea for Metro,” said board member Christian Dorsey, who added the concern wasn’t merely money-related. “We promised that we were going to be mature about this,” referring to their stewardship of a system that fell under federal oversight amid chronic safety lapses.

“I do not believe it would be responsible at this point to change the hours and put at risk the safety of our riders,” said Paul Smedberg, Virginia’s other voting member.

Metro Board member Steve McMillin, who represents the federal government, shed further light on the FTA’s position, specifically “the reason that this authority has a gun to its head.”

“The FTA in their defense has a responsibility under the law,” he said. “They have a responsibility to make sure that federal taxpayer dollars are being given to grantees that are using the money responsibly. . . . If we can’t meet those commitment then FTA is absolutely right to point out the facts."

Bowser did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Virginia Secretary of Transportation Shannon Valentine warned Metro against restoring late-night service, citing the vast implications on her state.

“The consequences of this cannot be overstated,” Valentine said. “All Virginia public transportation systems will lose critical federal funding until certification is complete. This will impact the 40 transit systems and 60 human service operators across the Commonwealth of Virginia.”

Some wondered why a regional conflict over late-night Metro service would affect transit agencies serving the Maryland suburbs and in localities further away, such as Hampton Roads, Va. The FTA has mandated that *transit agencies across the country* stand-up State Safety Oversight bodies, such as the Metrorail Safety Commission by an April 2019 deadline.

“If MSC misses the deadline, FTA will be prohibited by law from obligating a minimum of $638 million in FY 2019 federal transit funding to all transit providers across the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia until certification is achieved,” the FTA says on its website. A spokesman expanded further Thursday, adding:

“This includes anticipated funds from Fiscal Year 2019 and prior year funding that has not yet been awarded in a grant from all FTA programs.

Since 2017, Metro officials have used the extra hours to launch the system’s first preventive maintenance program, which the rail system estimates will take five years to run its initial course. The program followed SafeTrack, the year-long rebuilding effort that was implemented after several chronic safety lapses, including the L’Enfant Plaza smoke calamity that killed one rider and injured scores more.

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Evans, who was the lone vote against an initial measure to maintain Metro’s current schedule, expressed dismay with what he viewed as a “threat” from the FTA. “Nothing makes me crazier than what David [Horner] just reported from the FTA,” Evans said, telling board members that the agency had essentially “put a gun to our head and threatened to close down the agency.”

In comments following Thursday’s meeting, Evans called the FTA’s declaration “bizarre” but said the District will review its position over the next two weeks before a vote by the full board.

Katherine Shaver and Luz Lazo contributed to this report.