Regional transit ensnared in Metro penalty
Federal action aimed at local agency has impact on others ‘caught in the middle’
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.