Metro says $15.5 bil­lion cov­ers only crit­i­cal needs

The Washington Post Sunday - - COM­MUTER - BY MAR­TINE POW­ERS AND FAIZ SID­DIQUI mar­tine.pow­ers@wash­ faiz.sid­diqui@wash­

As Metro Gen­eral Man­ager Paul J. Wiede­feld ral­lies the Wash­ing­ton re­gion to pro­vide $15.5 bil­lion in long-term fund­ing, what’s lost in the de­bate is that the money is only enough to cover the agency’s most crit­i­cal cap­i­tal needs.

What’s miss­ing is fund­ing for projects and service that aren’t deemed safety-crit­i­cal but are im­por­tant for sys­tem re­li­a­bil­ity and func­tion — things that im­pact rid­ers on a daily ba­sis. There’s no money, for ex­am­ple, for con­struc­tion of a new Ross­lyn tun­nel to ease con­ges­tion on the Or­ange, Blue and Sil­ver lines or for a long-term fix for the chronic wa­ter leak­age on the Red Line that causes dozens of smoke and fire in­ci­dents — and service dis­rup­tions — each year.

Wiede­feld’s pro­posal to cap growth in the an­nual sub­si­dies D.C., Mary­land and Vir­ginia con­trib­ute for op­er­a­tions at 3 per­cent does not al­low for the ex­tra ex­pense of run­ning service on Phase 2 of the Sil­ver Line, re­duc­ing train head­ways or re­viv­ing late-night service.

At a meet­ing of the Metro board’s fi­nance com­mit­tee last week, Wiede­feld sought to man­age ex­pec­ta­tions. The $15.5 bil­lion, he said, would be used to make fixes he con­sid­ers non­nego­tiable for the safety and core op­er­a­tions of the sys­tem: up­grad­ing its power sys­tem to al­low for in­creased use of eight-car trains, re­plac­ing de­te­ri­o­rat­ing bus garages, re­plac­ing and re­ha­bil­i­tat­ing el­e­va­tors and es­ca­la­tors that are reach­ing the end of their use­ful lives, re­build­ing tracks that went un­touched dur­ing SafeTrack, and pay­ing for new trains to re­place the decades-old 2000- and 3000-se­ries cars. “These projects can­not be in jeop­ardy, because in my es­ti­ma­tion these projects are keep­ing the sys­tem safe and re­li­able,” Wiede­feld said. “This pretty much has to go for­ward.”

With­out the items on this list, Wiede­feld said, there will be dramatic con­se­quences for rid­ers over the course of the next decade — a sys­tem that re­turns to the chronic safety and re­li­a­bil­ity prob­lems of re­cent his­tory.

“Think of the last five-plus years,” Wiede­feld told reporters mat­ter-of-factly. “And think of that get­ting worse and worse.”

He also warned the list does not in­clude a num­ber of projects many peo­ple say are crit­i­cal to the growth of the re­gion — projects that are es­ti­mated to amount to an­other $9.5 bil­lion in cap­i­tal costs.

For ex­am­ple, the con­struc­tion of a long-dis­cussed se­cond Ross­lyn tun­nel, an ad­di­tional train con­nec­tion un­der the Po­tomac that would re­lieve a bot­tle­neck that causes de­lays on three lines, is not on the list.

Like­wise the $15.5 bil­lion would not al­low for ex­ten­sive work to per­ma­nently fix wa­ter in­fil­tra­tion prob­lems in the trou­ble­some stretch of the Red Line tun­nel near Friend­ship Heights, ex­ca­va­tion of new Metro sta­tion en­trances to re­lieve crowd­ing, or per­ma­nent up­grades to the limp­ing sta­tion ven­ti­la­tion sys­tems.

Metro board mem­ber An­thony E. Costa ex­pressed con­fu­sion. Were those costs Metro didn’t know about, he asked Wiede­feld at the board meet­ing, or sim­ply ex­penses the agency an­tic­i­pated but hadn’t pri­or­i­tized?

“A lit­tle bit of all the above,” Wiede­feld said.

Some eye­brows were raised. Wiede­feld said there are no de­tailed cost pro­jec­tions for such projects, because, for ex­am­ple, a se­cond Ross­lyn tun­nel isn’t con­sid­ered among the most press­ing safety needs.

Though Wiede­feld’s board pre­sen­ta­tion was sup­posed to be just a broad pre­view of the more de­tailed op­er­at­ing bud­get he will present this fall, he of­fered some details on what else would be con­sid­ered “ex­tra” ex­penses on the op­er­a­tions side.

As part of his at­tempts to bargain for long-term ded­i­cated fund­ing to fi­nance Metro’s cap­i­tal needs, Wiede­feld pro­posed cap­ping the an­nual growth in con­tri­bu­tions D.C., Vir­ginia and Mary­land are asked to pay each year to help cover the cost of the day-to-day op­er­a­tions.

His pro­posed 3-per­cent cap, along with cost-cut­ting mea­sures and in­creas­ing rev­enue, are an ef­fort to en­sure the ju­ris­dic­tional sub­si­dies grow only enough to ap­prox­i­mately match in­fla­tion each year.

But that doesn’t cover the many ex­penses that loom in the near fu­ture — such as op­er­at­ing Phase 2 of the Sil­ver Line or pay­ing for sta­tion man­agers and se­cu­rity at the new Po­tomac Yard sta­tion that is sched­uled to open in Alexan­dria in 2021.

When board mem­ber Michael Gold­man raised con­cerns those costs were not in­cor­po­rated into the agency’s plan­ning, Wiede­feld said bud­get pro­jec­tions hadn’t been made that far out yet so costs were un­known.

“We just want to raise the flag,” Wiede­feld said, “So peo­ple don’t think ‘Okay, the Sil­ver Line’s com­ing, that’s in the 3 per­cent.’ . . . It will be a new cost that can’t be [roped] in the 3 per­cent cap.”

An­other point of concern is an­tic­i­pated wage in­creases for work­ers. Metro and its largest union re­cently reached an im­passe in con­tract ne­go­ti­a­tions and are en­ter­ing bind­ing ar­bi­tra­tion that could re­sult in au­to­matic pay in­creases or un­ex­pected ben­e­fit costs.

Those po­ten­tial costs won’t be re­flected in the up­com­ing bud­get pro­posal, Wiede­feld said.

It was a harsh re­al­ity check for the Metro board and for the public: Even if Wiede­feld and the re­gion’s lead­ers some­how man­age to wran­gle $15.5 bil­lion for the sys­tem in the com­ing years, rid­ers will still only re­ceive the bare ba­sics of re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion, ren­o­va­tions, and in­vest­ment to en­sure Metro can con­tinue to get by at its cur­rent size — not ex­pand.

Some, like Metro board mem­ber Chris­tian Dorsey, are con­cerned about what’s already be­ing left on the cut­ting-room floor.

“This in no way re­flects what I’d love to see Metro be­come, and that’s my big worry,” Dorsey said. “When it comes time to mak­ing that ask [to pay for ad­di­tional cap­i­tal fund­ing], will peo­ple think that they have noth­ing else they need to con­trib­ute? It’s a big fear.”

Dorsey added grow­ing the sys­tem — not merely main­tain­ing what ex­ists — is crit­i­cal in a re­gion where so much de­vel­op­ment and in­vest­ment are de­pen­dent on tran­sit.

“I would guess that ev­ery­body at this ta­ble en­vi­sions our sys­tem grow­ing to not only meet fu­ture needs, but to in­duce fu­ture needs — mean­ing an­other river cross­ing, mean­ing maybe ex­tend­ing lines, maybe con­nect­ing lines,” Dorsey said. “And the danger that we’re hav­ing such a huge lift to get to where we have to be means, will there be fa­tigue in the re­gion when we then come and say, ‘Well, this is where we’d like to be?’ Will peo­ple say, ‘No, we’ve already done enough?’ ”

Wiede­feld de­fended the de­ci­sion to not prom­ise in­creased service given the re­al­i­ties of the bud­get sit­u­a­tion.

For too long, he said, Metro of­fi­cials ramped up bus and rail service with­out com­ing up with a long-term plan for how to pay for them.

If of­fi­cials want longer hours, or more fre­quent trains, or new bus routes — or a fully-func­tion­ing west­ern end of the Sil­ver Line — then the ju­ris­dic­tions will need to find a way to pay ex­tra.

“We can­not as­sume it’s some­how taken care of in the ex­ist­ing bud­get,” Wiede­feld said.

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