Plaudits, criticism greet new Metro rescue ideas
Proposals for union concessions, extra funds face daunting obstacles
General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld’s ambitious rescue plan for Metro drew a generally positive response Thursday, but a bitter dissent from the agency’s largest union was a sign of the formidable obstacles he faces.
Wiedefeld’s recommendations are “bad for riders, bad for workers and bad for the region,” Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 said in a statement. The union, which represents about 9,200 Metro workers, said Wiedefeld’s plans to outsource services and provide less-generous pensions to future hires aim “to balance the agency’s budget on the back of [Metro’s] hard-working employees.”
Overall, however, elected officials, transit advocates and business groups praised Wiedefeld for offering what many called a “reasonable” plan that deals head-on with the tough challenges facing the transit agency.
Although many disagreed with individual details, and the region’s top Republican officials were distinctly skeptical, most welcomed Wiedefeld’s call for new taxes or other dedicated sources of funding to channel an additional $500 million a year to Metro. The money would go to buy new rail cars, buses and other equipment, and perform the maintenance necessary to restore service quality after decades of underinvestment.
“This proposal appears to be a realistic and responsible contribution to the regional discussion about how best to fix Metro,” Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) said.
Wiedefeld’s plan “is the best we’ve seen to date,” said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the pro-transit Coalition for Smarter Growth. “His statement is bluntly honest about the situation, and we generally endorse his proposals.”
Despite the applause, no one underestimated the political difficulty of extracting union concessions and winning support for higher taxes from multiple jurisdictions in the District, Virginia and Maryland. Many politicians and analysts said it will be necessary to go further than Wiedefeld’s proposals, by restructuring the Metro board of directors and adopting other reforms in how the agency is governed.
“I think you need some governance changes to show that the people who will be spending the money will be doing a good job,” said Maryland state Del. Marc A. Korman (D-Montgomery), cochairman of a work group of Annapolis legislators focused on Metro issues.
Business groups such as the Greater Washington Board of Trade and the Federal City Council and politicians have proposed to shrink the 16-member Metro board and apply new membership requirements to streamline the panel’s work.
“Governance changes are necessary to enable Paul [ Wiedefeld] to make the changes necessary to return Metro to the world-class system it once was,” said Terry D. McAllister, chairman of the Greater Washington Board of Trade.
Wiedefeld said it wasn’t appropriate for him to propose reforming the governance structure above him. But he also expressed concern that such changes — which would require amending the Metro Compact, or governing document — could delay agreement on urgently needed funding.
“If we get into a whole thrashing of some of those issues, I just think it could drag out for years. I don’t think we have years,” Wiedefeld said.
Thursday morning, after having spent the previous 24 hours briefing more than 50 government officials and other regional leaders about his plan, Wiedefeld readily acknowledged the difficulty of his task.
“It’s going to be an extremely heavy lift,” he said at a news conference.
But Wiedefeld said he was optimistic that the region could overcome its differences on taxes, labor relations and governance because so many people see the need to save the transit system.
“I think the agreement, if you step back, is that they all want to try to do something to get this right. So that’s a good place to start,” Wiedefeld said.
Wiedefeld is about to launch meetings with Metro staffers, elected officials and private groups around the region to explain his plan further and try to win support.
Described in a six-page “White Paper” and 27-page PowerPoint presentation, the proposal explains why Metro needs $15.5 billion in investment over the next 10 years — an average increase of nearly 30 percent from its previous plan — to keep the system safe and reliable.
To allay concern that Metro spending is headed out of control, Wiedefeld also proposed to cap the annual growth in jurisdictions’ annual contributions for operations and investments at 3 percent. That’s separate from the new $500 million capital fund and a new $26 million “rainy day” fund Wiedefeld has proposed.
In a related effort to hold down costs, Wiedefeld proposed major concessions by Metro’s unionized workforce. A key part of the plan is to amend a federal arbitration law to strengthen management’s position in contract disputes.
His proposal to outsource operations — a form of privatization — drew particular opposition from unions. As an example, Wiedefeld suggested Metro’s unions might have to compete with private contractors for jobs on the second phase of the Silver Line, which is scheduled to open in 2020.
OPEIU Local 2, which represents many of Metro’s IT staff, engineers and contract adminis- trators, doubted the plan would achieve significant savings. It also expressed concern that the quality of work would decline.
“He [ Wiedefeld] thinks that contracting is a way to save money,” said Eric Starin, the union’s chief steward at Metro. “There might be rare incidents where that is true, but there are also an awful lot of incidents where it costs more money to contract work out.”
Wiedefeld’s privatization plan mirrors a similar strategy employed by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority in Boston. In the past year, the MBTA has outsourced warehouse and money-room operations, efforts that are projected to save an estimated $177 million over the next 10 years.
The agency also used threats of privatization to reach a new, money-saving contract deal with one of its biggest unions. Brian Shortsleeve, MBTA chief administrator and acting general manager, said he met with Wiedefeld this year to offer advice on how to employ the same strategies in Washington.
Republican lawmakers in Congress and the Virginia General Assembly — and some Democrats in the region — have said Metro must curb labor costs before they would be willing to consider giving the agency more money.
Wiedefeld needs congressional support to extend the program under which the federal government grants Metro $150 million a year — and the three local jurisdictions match it — for investments.
But his plan got off to a rough start with a key House member, Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.), the only Republican in the local delegation in the GOP-controlled Congress. She complained Wednesday that she didn’t receive an adequate briefing about Wiedefeld’s plan, saying she heard only about the “huge price tag.”
Wiedefeld tried to patch things up Thursday, saying he already planned to meet with Comstock next week.
“I will work with her very closely to get her more comfortable with at least understanding what we’re trying to do,” Wiedefeld said.
Comstock said Thursday she still lacked enough information to comment about the specifics of Wiedefeld’s plan. “I have asked for far more details on Metro’s operating and capital costs and the justifications for them than we have received to date,” Comstock said in a statement.
Wiedefeld’s plan also drew a tepid response from Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R). Hogan’s office said it had not seen details of the plan but reiterated the governor’s position that it is up to local leaders in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties to pursue dedicated funding if they choose.
“A statewide tax is a nonstarter,” said Amelia Chasse, a Hogan spokeswoman. “One question our administration does have is why this proposed plan does not call for an increase in federal funding, when approximately 40 percent of Metrorail riders are federal employees.”
Elected officials will be pressing for abundant details about Metro’s spending before supporting taxes or other dedicated funding.
“We need to know, for sure, what the cost is for what,” Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chair Sharon Bulova (D) said. “We need to be assured that labor issues have been addressed. We also need to know that governance issues have been addressed.”
Virginia Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne said such questions would be considered by a panel headed by former U.S. transportation secretary Ray LaHood, which is to study Metro and make recommendations in the fall.
Wiedefeld’s plan “gives us a very, very good basis to make a political case along with the review that Secretary LaHood’s doing,” Layne said.
Metro Board Chairman Jack Evans stressed that there will be a political cost for anyone who resists making concessions to make the plan work.
“Nobody’s going to look kindly on any party that says, ‘ I’m not compromising,’ ” Evans said. “I think they’re going to find themselves left out in the woods.”
Metro chief Paul J. Wiedefeld, seen in December, acknowledges a need to win over many stakeholders for his proposals to go ahead.