Putting Metro­rail on the right track

Ded­i­cated fund­ing is the key to long-term fi­nan­cial sta­bil­ity

The Washington Times Daily - - OPINION - By Tony Wil­liams Tony Wil­liams is the for­mer mayor of Wash­ing­ton.

There is a light at the end of the Metro­rail tun­nel. It’s dis­tant, but it’s there and for real. Lo­cal po­lit­i­cal of­fi­cials, busi­ness lead­ers, fed­eral leg­is­la­tors and reg­u­la­tors, rid­ers and cit­i­zens are co­a­lesc­ing around a con­sen­sus to re­form and re­store Metro. This is a crit­i­cal first step in re­solv­ing the gov­ern­ing and po­lit­i­cal road­blocks that have ham­pered good stew­ard­ship of the na­tion’s $42 bil­lion in­vest­ment in the Metro­rail sys­tem.

Busi­ness groups such as the Greater Wash­ing­ton Board of Trade and the Metropoli­tan Wash­ing­ton Coun­cil of Gov­ern­ments have ar­gued that es­tab­lish­ing a re­li­able fund­ing source should come first. Lead­er­ship of the Metro board has sug­gested the fed­eral gov­ern­ment should as­sume con­trol and man­age­ment of the sys­tem, much like hap­pened to the DC gov­ern­ment in 1995. Con­gres­sional lead­ers have pro­posed that Metro board mem­bers be re­quired to have pro­fes­sional tran­sit, man­age­ment or fi­nance ex­pe­ri­ence rather than serve solely as rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the lo­cal, state and fed­eral ju­ris­dic­tions.

What is good about this dis­cus­sion is that clar­ity of mis­sion is emerg­ing. There is univer­sal agree­ment that the governance struc­ture of Metro works against the proper man­age­ment of the or­ga­ni­za­tion; that the lack of a ded­i­cated fund­ing source ham­pers the sys­tem from prop­erly plan­ning and main­tain­ing its in­fra­struc­ture and di­verse man­age­ment en­er­gies from crit­i­cal func­tions; and that safety must truly be­come the core value of Metro.

Craft­ing a new fu­ture for Metro re­quires fo­cus on three in­ter­de­pen­dent themes: governance, fi­nan­cial ac­count­abil­ity and safety.

While it united dis­parate po­lit­i­cal and gov­ern­men­tal in­ter­ests in the 1960s, the WMATA Com­pact now works against the very sys­tem it helped to cre­ate. The com­pact is clearly an enor­mous bur­den and threat to the vi­a­bil­ity of Metro to­day, set­ting parochial in­ter­ests against the lives and in­ter­ests of Metro rid­ers and the re­gion. Since then the re­gion has un­der­gone enor­mous po­lit­i­cal, eco­nomic and so­cial changes, in­clud­ing the adoption of Home Rule in the Dis­trict, a di­ver­si­fy­ing eco­nomic base, ex­plo­sive pop­u­la­tion growth, and a con­trac­tion of fed­eral spend­ing. The com­pact must be re­vised to re­flect the con­tem­po­rary and fu­ture de­mands of our com­mu­nity.

The Fed­eral City Coun­cil rec­om­mends that the fed­eral gov­ern­ment with­draw its sup­port for the com­pact, which would, in ef­fect, dis­solve the cur­rent gov­ern­ing struc­ture and set the stage for much needed re­forms. This po­ten­tial ac­tion would be an im­por­tant cat­a­lyst to re­form Metro, its op­er­at­ing cul­ture and its struc­ture.

A new governance struc­ture will bring or­ga­ni­za­tional fo­cus to Metro, al­low­ing it to get the job done: place safety first, es­tab­lish stan­dards of op­er­a­tional ex­cel­lence, and cre­ate clear ac­count­abil­ity for the stew­ard­ship of the public’s in­vest­ment in Metro.

It is un­re­al­is­tic to ex­pect strong public sup­port for nec­es­sary re­forms if WMATA does not have the tools and can prove its abil­ity to ef­fec­tively man­age the ac­tiv­i­ties be­ing funded. Metro has a $300 mil­lion deficit in its fis­cal 2018 op­er­at­ing bud­get as well as a $200 mil­lion cap­i­tal fund­ing deficit to ad­dress de­ferred main­te­nance. The sys­tem’s an­nual fund­ing gaps and in­vest­ment needs can­not be re­solved with­out fur­ther op­er­a­tional and fi­nan­cial re­form. Ori­ent­ing Metro’s re­form ef­forts to es­tab­lish key per­for­mance met­rics for fi­nan­cial and op­er­a­tional health is es­sen­tial. All ap­proaches and tools must be con­sid­ered to en­sure that Metro re­claims its rep­u­ta­tion of op­er­a­tional ex­cel­lence and ef­fi­ciency. With the sys­tem in cri­sis there can be no un­touch­able op­tions.

Strong governance must be matched with a ma­ture and in­tel­li­gent fund­ing regime that re­flects the com­mu­nity’s com­mit­ment and ob­jec­tives for mass tran­sit. The fi­nan­cial chal­lenges that re­sult from Metro’s lack of ded­i­cated fund­ing have been well-doc­u­mented. The adoption of a ded­i­cated fund­ing source is crit­i­cal to ad­dress­ing Metro’s fi­nan­cial chal­lenges. No other Amer­i­can tran­sit sys­tem of com­pa­ra­ble size and scope op­er­ates with­out a ded­i­cated fund­ing source. Ded­i­cated fund­ing will al­low man­agers to plan op­er­a­tions and main­te­nance ac­cord­ing to the high­est in­dus­try stan­dards for safety and ef­fi­ciency, and will re­lieve com­mu­nity lead­ers of the con­stant fis­cal threat that Metro faces. Sev­eral pro­pos­als, like the Coun­cil of Gov­ern­ments/Board of Trade’s one-cent re­gional sales tax, should be eval­u­ated as a so­lu­tion. Rid­ers and non-rid­ers alike ben­e­fit from Metro, and there­fore all con­stituen­cies of the metropoli­tan area need to en­gage with Metro’s long-term fi­nan­cial sta­bil­ity.

Di­rectly linked to a new, strong governance and fund­ing en­vi­ron­ment is a mis­sion of safe op­er­a­tions. Un­der the lead­er­ship of Gen­eral Man­ager Paul Wei­de­feld, safety has be­come a top pri­or­ity. Metro is a com­plex sys­tem of peo­ple, ma­chines and tech­nol­ogy, and safety must be writ­ten and trained into the cul­tural fab­ric of the or­ga­ni­za­tion. We ap­plaud the sig­na­to­ries for ad­vanc­ing leg­is­la­tion to cre­ate the Metro Safety Com­mis­sion, to add a check and bal­ance to the or­ga­ni­za­tion and to en­sure in­de­pen­dent and di­rect ac­count­abil­ity for safe op­er­a­tions.

Metro has demon­strated its value to our re­gional econ­omy and the de­vel­op­ment of our neigh­bor­hoods. It has changed the land­scape of the metropoli­tan area, fos­tered new de­vel­op­ment, in­creased our area’s global com­pet­i­tive­ness, al­tered our work and daily life habits and com­mit­ments, and be­come a pow­er­ful en­gine of so­cial change and growth. We live in a more di­verse and lively com­mu­nity be­cause of Metro. We can re­store the sys­tem to what was once the envy of ci­ties around the world if we demon­strate po­lit­i­cal will and com­mit­ment to our re­gion, to the na­tional role of our city, and to our eco­nomic fu­ture.

There is a light at the end of the tun­nel, built on a new governance, fund­ing and safety foun­da­tion for Metro. We need the po­lit­i­cal ef­fort, for­ti­tude and lead­er­ship to reach for it.

It is un­re­al­is­tic to ex­pect strong public sup­port for nec­es­sary re­forms if WMATA does not have the tools and can prove its abil­ity to ef­fec­tively man­age the ac­tiv­i­ties be­ing funded.

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