Re­gional tran­sit en­snared in Metro penalty

Fed­eral ac­tion aimed at lo­cal agency has im­pact on oth­ers ‘caught in the mid­dle’

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY MAR­TINE POW­ERS

When fed­eral of­fi­cials im­posed fi­nan­cial penal­ties on the re­gion to force ac­tion on safety over­sight of Metro, the im­pact was felt 200 miles away at a mid­size tran­sit agency in South­side Vir­ginia.

Since the an­nounce­ment, Bran­don Sin­gle­ton, chief fi­nan­cial of­fi­cer for Hamp­ton Roads Tran­sit, has been por­ing over the agency’s bud­get, try­ing to fig­ure out how the agency can make tem­po­rary ad­min­is­tra­tive cuts and de­lay cap­i­tal projects to cover a short-term bud­get short­fall with­out cut­ting bus, light-rail, ferry and para­tran­sit ser­vices.

“We don’t have re­serve fund­ing. We don’t have a rainy-day fund,” said Sin­gle­ton, whose agency could tem­po­rar­ily lose more than $500,000 in fed­eral fund­ing through the end of April. “It will have a di­rect and im­me­di­ate im­pact.”

Though the Fed­eral Tran­sit Ad­min­is­tra­tion’s de­ci­sion to with­hold mil­lions in tran­sit funds for the Dis­trict, Mary- land and Vir­ginia was meant to serve as a penalty for their fail­ure to meet its dead­line for es­tab­lish­ment of a safety agency to over­see Metro — the ac­tion didn’t just af­fect Metro.

In ac­cor­dance with fed­eral law, the FTA tem­po­rar­ily de­ducted 5 per­cent of all tran­sit fund­ing to the ju­ris­dic­tions, an es­ti­mated to­tal of $15 mil­lion over a full fis­cal year. And that money goes to pay for all kinds of tran­sit projects and pro­grams — well be­yond the Wash­ing­ton re­gion.

That means in places as far from Wash­ing­ton as Roanoke and Sal­is­bury, Md., tran­sit ad­min­is­tra­tors are work­ing

de­ter­mine whether, and how, their agen­cies will suf­fer as a re­sult of Metro’s woes.

“I un­der­stand what the gov­ern­ment is try­ing to do . . . but I think, to some de­gree, pe­nal­iz­ing the en­tire state. That’s hard to swal­low,” Sin­gle­ton said. “We’re kind of caught in the mid­dle.”

The move to with­hold the money has drawn ire from law­mak­ers, who say the prac­tice is fun­da­men­tally un­fair to smaller agen­cies that are al­ready op­er­at­ing on ra­zor-thin mar­gins.

But it could also be an ef­fec­tive move to help pres­sure Mary­land and Vir­ginia law­mak­ers who have, in the eyes of the FTA, dragged their feet in draft­ing and pass­ing leg­is­la­tion to es­tab­lish an in­de­pen­dent agency that would be re­spon­si­ble for mon­i­tor­ing and en­forc­ing safety at Metro — re­spon­si­bil­i­ties that the fed­eral gov­ern­ment has been han­dling since Oc­to­ber 2015.

The D.C. Coun­cil passed leg­is­la­tion estab­lish­ing the panel in De­cem­ber. All three ju­ris­dic­tions must pass iden­ti­cal bills.

Rep. Ger­ald E. Con­nolly (D-Va.) said he un­der­stands the FTA’s ap­proach — that the Mary­land and Vir­ginia gen­eral as­sem­blies were to blame for fail­ing to es­tab­lish the Metro Safety Com­mis­sion by the Feb. 9 dead­line, so the reper­cus­sions for that fail­ure should be spread through­out the re­gion.

He also ac­knowl­edged that the wide­spread im­pacts might has­ten ac­tion from law­mak­ers. Even so, he said, he dis­agreed with the de­ci­sion.

“It’s a car­rot-and-stick ap­proach, but it’s very crude, and you’re tak­ing a puni­tive ac­tion with ac­tors that have no con­trol of the process,” Con­nolly said. “I think that’s un­fair.”

Matthew F. Le­tourneau, vice chair of the Metropoli­tan Wash­ing­ton Coun­cil of Gov­ern­ments, said he fears that the widely cast net of the FTA’s ac­tions will serve only to en­cour­age more ill will of Metro from law­mak­ers out­side the Wash­ing­ton re­gion — yet an­other ob­sta­cle at a time when North­ern Vir­ginia politi­cians are try­ing to jump-start dis­cus­sion about rewrit­ing the Metro Com­pact and estab­lish­ing a ded­i­cated fund­ing source for the tran­sit agency.

Rather than fos­ter­ing a “we’re all in this to­gether” at­ti­tude, Le­tourneau said, those out-of­s­tate law­mak­ers whose sup­port is needed may view the FTA ac­tion as more ev­i­dence of Metro’s dys­func­tion and a de­ter­rent to pro­vid­ing ad­di­tional fi­nan­cial sup­port.

“If any­thing, it’s go­ing to cre­ate re­sent­ment, frankly,” Le­tourneau said.

Ac­cord­ing to the of­fice of Mary­land Gov. Larry Ho­gan (R), the FTA’s ac­tions won’t have an im­pact on tran­sit ser­vices un­der the purview of the state Depart­ment of Transportation. If the funds are with­held past Sept. 30, the end of the fis­cal year, the state will float the agen­cies the money in the short-term while they wait for the FTA to re­lease the funds.

The Po­tomac and Rap­pa­han­nock Transportation Com­mis­sion, which rep­re­sents Prince Wil­liam, Stafford and Spot­syl­va­nia coun­ties and the cities of Manas­sas, Manas­sas Park and Fredericksburg, es­ti­mates it won’t in­cur any sig­nif­i­cant fi­nan­cial is­sues un­til the end of the cur­rent cal­en­dar year. Wary of the un­pre­dictabil­ity of fed­eral fund­ing, the com­mis­sion main­tains a con­tin­gency fund to help with cash flow when fed­eral funds are slow to trickle in, Ex­ec­u­tive Di­rec­tor Eric Marx said.

And Carrie Rose Pace, spokes­woman for the Greater Rich­mond Tran­sit Co., said the tran­sit agency has re­ceived con­fir­ma­tion from Vir­ginia of­fi­cials that the state is will­ing to help with any fi­nan­cial is­sues that arise while they wait for FTA fund­ing to come through. The agency is due about $337,000 by the end of April.

“The com­mon­wealth has al­ready as­sured us that any­thing we need, they’re go­ing to help,” Pace said. But, she added, “it’s con­cern­ing, cer­tainly, when some­thing like this hap­pens and we’re not at fault.”

Rep­re­sen­ta­tives for sev­eral of the agen­cies said they are op­ti­mistic that the Metro Safety Com­mis­sion will be es­tab­lished, and the FTA penalty lifted, long be­fore the end of the fis­cal year.

But the agen­cies may have to wait longer than any­one an­tic­i­pates. The money will be held by the fed­eral gov­ern­ment un­til the safety com­mis­sion is cer­ti­fied by fed­eral reg­u­la­tors. Ac­cord­ing to the FTA, the cer­ti­fi­ca­tion process in­volves not only sign­ing the leg­is­la­tion, but also sub­mit­ting doc­u­men­ta­tion on the new com­mis­sion’s in­tended staff and ex­per­tise, and con­duct­ing a “tran­si­tional hand­off pe­riod” dur­ing which new safety in­spec­tors must work side by side with FTA of­fi­cials.

In short — it could be a while be­fore the FTA for­mally signs off on the over­sight body and hands over the cash ap­por­tioned to the tran­sit agen­cies.

But in the longer term, the re­cent im­pact of Metro’s safety chal­lenges may serve as an omi­nous por­tent for fed­eral tran­sit fund­ing for other agen­cies in the Dis­trict, Mary­land and Vir­ginia. Some tran­sit ad­vo­cates are con­cerned that the head­line­grab­bing fi­nan­cial and op­er­a­tional prob­lems at Metro might taint the rep­u­ta­tions of lesser­known agen­cies and hurt their abil­ity to com­pete for fed­eral dol­lars in an un­cer­tain po­lit­i­cal cli­mate.

Many Repub­li­cans in Congress al­ready want to elim­i­nate fed­eral fund­ing for tran­sit; the Repub­li­can Party plat­form, ap­proved at its con­ven­tion in July, called for grad­u­ally phas­ing out all such fund­ing.

Last sum­mer, the Greater Rich­mond Tran­sit Co. re­ceived a com­men­da­tion of “achieve­ment of ex­cel­lence” dur­ing the agency’s tri­en­nial re­view by the Fed­eral Tran­sit Ad­min­is­tra­tion. Pace said it’s im­por­tant for agen­cies like hers to tout those achieve­ments and make it clear to Congress that fed­eral tran­sit dol­lars are put to good use — and that lo­cal tran­sit agen­cies de­serve to con­tinue re­ceiv­ing them.

“We re­main very fo­cused on do­ing the best we can with the dol­lars we re­ceive,” Pace said. “We’re mak­ing sure that we’re good stew­ards for that fund­ing, so there aren’t any ques­tions.”

Luz Lazo and Josh Hicks con­trib­uted to this re­port.

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