Putting Metrorail on the right track
Dedicated funding is the key to long-term financial stability
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.