A ray of hope for Metro fund­ing?

Poll finds some sup­port for a re­gion­wide sales tax

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY EMILY GUSKIN AND MARTINE POW­ERS

Mary­lan­ders nar­rowly sup­port a re­gion­wide sales tax to boost Metro fund­ing, giv­ing it the most sup­port among sev­eral pro­pos­als to bol­ster the strug­gling tran­sit agency, a new Wash­ing­ton Post-Uni­ver­sity of Mary­land poll finds.

The sur­vey of Mary­land res­i­dents of­fers a pic­ture of lo­cal tax­pay­ers’ pref­er­ences as lead­ers from the Dis­trict, Mary­land and Vir­ginia ramp up their ef­forts to find con­sen­sus on a ded­i­cated fund­ing source for Metro — a move of­fi­cials say is nec­es­sary to keep the tran­sit agency fi­nan­cially sol­vent in com­ing years.

But there are mixed opin­ions on what that rev­enue source should be, as of­fi­cials weigh the ben­e­fits and draw­backs of an in­crease in sub­si­dies that the ju­ris­dic­tions con­trib­ute to the agency, the launch of a Metro-ded­i­cated sales tax, spe­cial tax dis­tricts near Metro sta­tions or an­other method of fun­nel­ing hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars to the tran­sit agency.

For res­i­dents in Wash­ing­ton’s Mary­land sub­urbs, where ap­praisals of Metro have plum­meted, a re­gional sales tax draws luke­warm sup­port. But it is more pop­u­lar than other op­tions.

Metro fund­ing will be a key fo­cus of a group con­vened by Vir­ginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) and headed by for­mer U.S. trans­porta­tion sec­re­tary Ray LaHood. The in­de­pen­dent panel will study the sys­tem’s gov­er­nance and longterm fi­nan­cial needs and will is­sue a re­port by fall with the goal of aid­ing Vir­ginia and Mary­land law­mak­ers as they head into their 2018 leg­isla­tive ses­sions.

“Clearly, you’ve heard me say

[2019] is go­ing to be an is­sue. I can­not con­tinue to cut ser­vice and raise fares, cut staff,” Metro Gen­eral Man­ager Paul J. Wiede­feld said, speak­ing about Metro’s op­er­at­ing bud­get for fis­cal year 2019. “At some point, we have to re­ally think about how we are go­ing to have a sta­ble source of fund­ing for the sys­tem.”

Metro fund­ing

Metro and many elected lead­ers say the agency needs a ded­i­cated source of fund­ing to pay for long-ne­glected main­te­nance, cover ris­ing costs, make fed­er­ally man­dated safety im­prove­ments and re­cover rev­enue lost be­cause of de­clin­ing rid­er­ship. Wiede­feld says he has ex­hausted his op­tions for in­ter­nal belt-tight­en­ing and needs a new in­flux of money to keep the sys­tem afloat.

The Post-U-Md. poll posed ques­tions on five pro­pos­als that would pro­vide the agency with more fund­ing, and the ma­jor­ity of Mary­lan­ders re­jected four of them.

Sixty-six per­cent of all res­i­dents op­pose cut­ting rail and bus fre­quency, while 56 per­cent do not want fare in­creases — two op­tions that have al­ready been adopted by the Metro board, which voted Thurs­day to fi­nal­ize fare in­creases and ser­vice cuts that will start July 1.

Nearly two-thirds of Mary­lan­ders, 65 per­cent, op­pose cre­at­ing a new prop­erty tax on build­ings and homes near Metro sta­tions. Fifty-five per­cent re­ject a gen­eral in­crease in fund­ing from the Mary­land, Vir­ginia and D.C. gov­ern­ments paid for by rais­ing taxes or cut­ting other pro­grams.

But by 51 per­cent to 42 per­cent, more Mary­lan­ders sup­port than op­pose cre­at­ing a re­gional sales tax ded­i­cated to Metro. Res­i­dents in the in­ner sub­urbs are more evenly split, with 50 per­cent fa­vor­ing and 47 per­cent op­pos­ing a re­gional sales tax. The sales tax is sup­ported by 55 per­cent in Mont­gomery com­pared with 44 per­cent in Prince Ge­orge’s, although dif­fer­ences are within the poll’s mar­gin of sam­pling er­ror.

Wil­liam Moreno, 54, is open to the idea of a re­gional sales tax. A reg­is­tered Repub­li­can liv­ing in Sil­ver Spring, Moreno said he has been in­creas­ingly dis­mayed at the qual­ity of Metro’s ser­vice. The sys­tem was once his pre­ferred op­tion for trav­el­ing into the Dis­trict for busi­ness meet­ings or Na­tion­als games, but he is fed up with the chronic de­lays, the plod­ding pace of the Red Line and the stress of won­der­ing whether he will ar­rive on time. Now, he drives.

“Some­times I think they should just blow it up and start from scratch,” he said.

De­spite his qualms, Moreno would be will­ing to con­sider a small sales-tax in­crease that went di­rectly to the tran­sit agency. He agrees that Metro needs more money for nec­es­sary re­pairs to im­prove safety and re­li­a­bil­ity. A sales tax is the best op­tion, he said, be­cause in­di­vid­u­als would have more con­trol over how much they would pay, cut­ting back on lux­u­ries or recre­ational ac­tiv­i­ties if nec­es­sary.

“Liv­ing in Mont­gomery County, we are con­stantly be­ing forced to look at taxes based on so­cial cri­te­ria, and I’m not into that stuff,” Moreno said. “I want it to be based on where and when I’m spend­ing, more than on what I’m mak­ing or the house that I al­ready spent a lot of money to buy.”

He would like to see the fed­eral gov­ern­ment kick in a lit­tle more money, too, for Metro’s year-toyear op­er­a­tions.

“I’m not a big-gov­ern­ment guy,” Moreno said, “but this is a lit­tle dif­fer­ent. This is the fed­eral city.”

Sup­port for the other fund­ing op­tions fluc­tu­ates across coun­ties in Mary­land. The idea of in­creas­ing the sub­si­dies that Mary­land, Vir­ginia and the Dis­trict pay gar­ners sup­port from 56 per­cent of Mont­gomery res­i­dents, but twothirds of Prince Ge­orge’s res­i­dents op­pose it. Clear ma­jori­ties of both Mont­gomery and Prince Ge­orge’s coun­ties re­ject fare in­creases as a way to solve Metro’s long-term fund­ing prob­lems, out­pac­ing op­po­si­tion in the rest of the state.

Prince Ge­orge’s res­i­dent James Cooks op­poses a re­gional sales tax, say­ing county res­i­dents are al­ready over­bur­dened by taxes.

The Fort Wash­ing­ton res­i­dent and fed­eral gov­ern­ment worker is a fan of Metro — he uses the sys­tem a few times a week. He has faith that the agency’s SafeTrack main­te­nance pro­gram will even­tu­ally lead to im­proved safety and re­li­a­bil­ity. And Metro de­serves more money to sup­port those ef­forts, he says. But he fears that a re­gional sales tax would dis­prore­cently, por­tion­ately af­fect Prince Ge­orge’s res­i­dents, who would end up pay­ing more than their fair share while re­ceiv­ing lessthan-stel­lar ser­vice.

“With­out a doubt, peo­ple gen­er­ally are over­bur­dened with taxes right now,” said Cooks, who is in his 60s. “Un­less you can de­vise a way that the tax bur­den would be shared equally be­tween the ju­ris­dic­tions, I don’t think it’s fea­si­ble . . . . If you look at the prop­erty tax sit­u­a­tion in Mary­land and in Prince Ge­orge’s County, it’s clearly dis­pro­por­tion­ate.”

Op­po­si­tion is strong — and shared — in Mont­gomery and Prince Ge­orge’s to three other pro­pos­als: Seventy-one per­cent of Prince Ge­orge’s and Mont­gomery res­i­dents do not want ser­vice cuts, and 69 per­cent op­pose spe­cial prop­erty-tax dis­tricts near Metro sta­tions.

Per­haps sur­pris­ingly, Mary­lan­ders who live beyond the Dis­trict’s close-in sub­urbs also are hes­i­tant to sup­port some pro­pos­als that would mainly af­fect those who live in ar­eas served by Metro. Among subur­ban and ru­ral res­i­dents out­side the D.C. and Bal­ti­more ar­eas, more than 6 in 10 dis­ap­prove of spe­cial prop­erty taxes on build­ings near Metro sta­tions, and th­ese ar­eas split evenly on higher fares. Fifty-seven per­cent op­pose greater fund­ing from Mary­land, Vir­ginia and the Dis­trict; but by 50 per­cent to 41 per­cent, more sup­port the cre­ation of a re­gional sales tax to fund Metro.

Tum­bling rat­ings

The Post-U-Md. poll also finds that Metro’s im­age has plum­meted sharply among Mont­gomery and Prince Ge­orge’s res­i­dents since 2013, although they also are among the most op­ti­mistic that the sys­tem will im­prove in the com­ing years.

Sixty-eight per­cent of Prince Ge­orge’s and Mont­gomery res­i­dents sur­veyed rated Metro’s rail sys­tem as ex­cel­lent or good four years ago. Now, just 41 per­cent of­fer the same praise.

And dur­ing that pe­riod, the num­ber who rated Metro most poorly in­creased sig­nif­i­cantly. In 2013, just 2 per­cent of Mary­lan­ders sur­veyed in the Wash­ing­ton sub­urbs rated the sys­tem “poor.” To­day, 25 per­cent do.

The sys­tem’s most gen­er­ous re­views come from those who are dis­tanced from its day-to-day dys­func­tions: Metro re­ceives higher marks out­side the D.C. sub­urbs, where 45 per­cent rate the sys­tem pos­i­tively and 25 per­cent view it neg­a­tively, although 30 per­cent of those peo­ple in the sur­vey vol­un­teer that they have never used it or have no opin­ion.

The de­te­ri­o­ra­tion in good­will to­ward Metro has been most dra­matic for higher-in­come res­i­dents in Mont­gomery and Prince Ge­orge’s. In 2013, 77 per­cent of D.C.-area Mary­lan­ders mak­ing $100,000 or more gave Metro pos­i­tive rat­ings — now just 34 per­cent do. Rat­ings also fell among lower-in­come res­i­dents, but not as sharply. The share of those with house­hold in­comes un­der $50,000 giv­ing Metro pos­i­tive rat­ings dropped to 47 per­cent from 61 per­cent in 2013.

“Some­times I think they should just blow it up and start from scratch.” Wil­liam Moreno, Sil­ver Spring res­i­dent who is open to the idea of a small sales-tax in­crease whose pro­ceeds would go di­rectly to the tran­sit agency

Many see de­cline, are hope­ful

In line with Metro’s fall­ing rat­ings, 41 per­cent of Mary­lan­ders in the D.C. area say the sys­tem has be­come worse in the past five years, while 20 per­cent say it has im­proved. About a third, 34 per­cent, say it has not changed.

Prince Ge­orge’s res­i­dents are par­tic­u­larly neg­a­tive on Metro, with 48 per­cent say­ing the sys­tem is worse, com­pared with 35 per­cent who say the same in Mont­gomery.

But res­i­dents of the D.C. sub­urbs also ex­press the most op­ti­mism that Metro will im­prove, more so than Mary­lan­ders in the rest of the state. While fewer than 4 in 10 of those in the rest of Mary­land ex­pect the rail sys­tem to im­prove over the next five years (37 per­cent), half of those in the close-in sub­urbs think it will get bet­ter. At the same time, 43 per­cent of D.C.-area Mary­lan­ders ex­pect the sys­tem to stay about the same or to get worse.

The Post-U-Md. poll was con­ducted March 16-19 among a ran­dom sam­ple of 914 Mary­land res­i­dents reached on cel­lu­lar and land­line phones. The sur­vey was con­ducted in part­ner­ship with the Cen­ter for Amer­i­can Pol­i­tics and Cit­i­zen­ship at the Uni­ver­sity of Mary­land. Over­all re­sults carry a four-per­cent­age-point mar­gin of sam­pling er­ror; the er­ror mar­gin is 6.5 per­cent­age points among the sam­ple of 317 res­i­dents in Mary­land’s D.C. sub­urbs.

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