Putting Metro back on track
Paul Wiedefeld, the man hired to put the D.C., Maryland and Virginia mass transit system back on track, delivered a threepronged plan Thursday to begin the long arduous process. The proposal is simple: Spend and squirrel away money for capital needs, spend money to fix today’s and tomorrow’s operating needs, and spend money to maintain the system. The total cost of the proposal is $15.5 billion over 10 years. It also would pull from federal, state and local coffers, as public transit systems do.
Of course, where Metro’s money comes from and how it’s spent are part-and-parcel of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. The District, where Metro is headquartered, has its financial and political needs, as do Maryland and Virginia.
For example, each jurisdiction has non-Metro mass transit needs to tend to, especially Amtrak, and commuter and private rail and bus lines. Maryland also has Baltimore’s urban systems, and Marc and feeder rail, and local and regional bus systems. Virginia is similar, having to consider Virginia Railway Express, a handful of local bus systems, and five individual public transit bus systems.
Meanwhile, D.C. officials also spend public funds on the Circulator bus system and the D.C. Streetcar, a light-rail that rolls only along a portion of H Street NE.
In addition, D.C., Maryland and Virginia transportation wallets have to reckon with Amtrak, our nation’s public choo-choo train, which always needs tokens from the federal coffer.
Mr. Wiedefeld’s Metro plan does not take all of the above into consideration, but it is nonetheless practical because it offers opportunities for federal and state transit officials to plan — something politicians are often hesitant to do.
The Wiedefeld plan includes:
● Labor reform: Metro would outsource some jobs and cut its own workforce. This is smart business sense in Virginia, a right-to-work state and home to Metro’s under-construction Silver Line in Northern Virginia.
Mr. Wiedefeld also wants new Metro workers to participate in a 401(k)-like program.
Metro’s chief union is not pleased, to say the least. ATU 689 called the overall plan “bad for riders, bad for workers and bad for the region,” and (to no one’s surprise) it took special exception to outsourcing jobs.
As things stand, Metro is facing a $1 billion unfunded pension liability, as well as $1.8 billion in other retiree benefits.
Metro clearly needs to consider a new business model for its overall fiscal health as more and more unions push for minimum-wage increases.
● Funding: Tax-and-spend is the cog in the Wiedefeld plan for the out years. Some supporters want a regional sales tax, some want a tax on transit-oriented properties that developers would pay. It’s still a tax, and neither Democratic Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe nor Republican Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan is in the mood to raise taxes.
The tax-and-spend gimmick for Metro’s out years is called a dedicated funding source, and it may be a low rate at the outset, but rest assured it will never be enough to satisfy the needs of Metro.
There are, however, politicians, such as Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, who already have blessed such public pickpocketing. Mr. Kaine is “open to any solutions that meet the main criteria of ensuring a reliable funding source and making positive changes to safety and governance.”
Mr. Wiedefeld, whose plan includes other funding proposals, is a smart enough political haymaker to know he’s got to please most of the people most of the time. He’s also smart enough to know that while Metro is indeed the backbone our region’s mass transit network, it is but one link in our regional transportation system.
Metro used to be D.C.-centric, but no more. Putting Metro back on track means board members must view the system through different lenses as they weigh the 10-year, $15.5 billion proposal.
Deborah Simmons can be contacted at email@example.com.