Putting Metro back on track

The Washington Times Daily - - METRO - DEB­O­RAH SIM­MONS

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 dsim­mons@wash­ing­ton­times.com.

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