There are no fewer than four distinct plans being floated to save Metro. Business leaders and elected officials urge a crusade to repair the transit system by restructuring its board, giving it reliable funding or handing it over to the federal government. They proclaim bravely that failure is not an option.
In fact, experience with similar restructuring efforts suggests that failure is the probable outcome. The same political and economic divisions that have stymied restructuring for the past 40 years persist today.
If the region is to finally fix Metro’s structural weaknesses, analysts say, then force must be exerted on the top elected officials in the District, Maryland and Virginia to get them to act.
One such stimulus for change would be a unified coalition of business leaders, transit advocates and civic organizations. Government and business groups, including the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG), the Greater Washington Board of Trade and the Federal City Council hope to assemble such a bloc.
It’s especially important that prominent chief executives join the effort, supporters say. Top executives of large companies have the clout needed to persuade legislators in Richmond and Annapolis to ensure dependable revenue for Metro, and possibly transform its board and other governing structures.
“It has to be key industry leaders, CEOs, stepping up and saying, ‘We can’t afford to live in limbo here,’ ” said Bob Buchanan, president of the 2030 Group, a regional business organization. “The status quo continues to be an embarrassment as Metro twists slowly in the wind, and piecemeal efforts aren’t going to do it.”
But many CEOs of major companies in the area are busy with national or global issues rather than local ones, or they prefer to avoid potential political controversies.
Another potential change agent — but less desirable — is Congress. It could appoint a control board or other body to take over Metro — temporarily or permanently — and push through needed changes to save the system.
Metro board Chairman Jack Evans, who also is a D.C. Council member, is among those who has endorsed such plans.
That prospect has lost much of its allure with Republican victories in the recent national election. Much of the GOP prefers to devote transportation dollars to roads, and the party platform approved in July urged phasing out federal transit spending altogether.
“There needs to be a strategic pause in discussion of a control board,” said a senior official in the administration of D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), who asked not to be named to speak candidly about a sensitive political issue.
The question to be decided in the coming months is whether the region can overcome its internal differences and coalesce around a common plan. Otherwise, federal intervention becomes more likely.
Two major obstacles loom. First, it will be difficult to get Virginia’s support for increased taxes for Metro, as advocated by the District and Montgomery County. Northern Virginia Democrats said it would probably be necessary for their state to find a different source of fresh revenue, such as highway tolls.
“This all really hinges on Virginia,” said COG Chairman Roger Berliner, who also is a Democratic Montgomery County Council member representing Potomac-Bethesda. “I know we will win in the District. I believe we can win in Maryland.”
A division also has emerged over whether it is necessary to transform Metro’s board and governing structure at the same time that reliable funding is sought.
On one side, Virginia and the Federal City Council say it’s vital to rewrite the Metro compact, the founding document that outlines how Metro is governed and funded. U.S. Reps. John Delaney (D-Md.) and Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) also have proposed revising the compact, albeit to a lesser extent, by requiring Metro board members to have expertise in transit or another relevant discipline.
“There’s no doubt there needs to be governance restructuring,” Virginia Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne said. “It needs a visioning process so we can look at both public and private entities [as guides] and ask, ‘What’s the best structure to run Metro?’ ”
By contrast, the District, the COG and the Board of Trade have sought to avoid a discussion of amending the compact. Although they are open to it if a consensus could be reached, they say they fear that a battle would undercut the higher priority of obtaining a dedicated funding source.
“It runs the risk of being a distraction from the core issues with the system,” the senior District official said. “The riders don’t care who governs Metro. They just want a safe system that gets them to where they need to go.”
There is little time to waste. Officials have said they need a common funding plan by summer. That would allow for a lobbying campaign before the Virginia and Maryland legislative sessions open in early 2018.
Metro’s budget pressures have led some players to think of moving more quickly. The Board of Trade may propose legislation in the Richmond and Annapolis sessions beginning in January to allow the suburban counties to tax themselves to raise money for Metro.
“It probably needs to move faster than originally anticipated,” James C. Dinegar, president of the Board of Trade, said.
Here’s a summary of the four plans:
●Put funding first. The COG and the Board of Trade have been working since spring on a plan to seek a reliable funding stream in exchange for setting performance benchmarks for Metro on safety, reliability and customer satisfaction.
Metro is the only major transit system in the nation that doesn’t obtain a significant amount of its revenue from a tax or other dedicated source.
The proposal got a major boost last month when Bowser publicly urged adoption of a regional sales tax of at least half a penny to fund Metro.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R), a strong opponent of higher taxes, initially was cool to the idea. But he later signaled he could go along if Montgomery and Prince George’s wanted to tax themselves to support Metro, as long as the rest of the state wasn’t affected.
Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) has supported a regionwide sales tax for Metro for two years. Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) sought to place responsibility on Annapolis. His spokesman noted that the state, rather than the counties, has funded Metro in the recent past, and has “unique authority” to explore sources such as a sales tax.
A major hurdle is Virginia. The Republican-controlled General Assembly opposes tax increases to help Metro. Even Northern Virginia Democrats said they can’t ask their constituents to pay more in sales or property taxes to support transportation.
“That’s something we’ll all be scratching our heads over,” Bulova said.
●Rewrite the compact. The Federal City Council, arguing that dedicated funding alone isn’t enough to save the agency, introduced a proposal this month to radically overhaul Metro’s governance by rewriting the agency’s compact.
The council wants to reduce the size of the 16-member Metro board, among other things, to make it more efficient. It also wants to weaken union protections by dropping the requirement that outside arbitrators decide labor contract disputes. Such mandatory arbitration has had the effect of driving up labor costs.
The proposal to reopen the compact enjoys wide support in the business community, but transit advocates are skeptical.
“You could end up in a complete quagmire, stalemate, unable to come to an agreement on the union issues, on funding formulas,” said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth.
●Let the feds take over. Evans, the Metro chairman, has been so frustrated with the board that he called for federal appointees to take control of the agency, either temporarily or permanently.
He has acknowledged that such a scenario is unlikely. He hoped in part to call attention to the structural problem in which board members have split loyalties between their duties to Metro and to the jurisdictions that appoint them.
The Federal City Council urged Congress use the threat of a federal control board as an incentive to force the District, Virginia and Maryland to agree on changes.
Some welcomed that idea as providing necessary leverage. Others said that it risked handing over Metro to people with no stake in the region.
“Congress can’t even pass a budget on time, and we’re going to ask them to make the trains run on time?” said Ronit A. Dancis, president of the Action Committee for Transit, which advocates for improved public transit. “I’m not comfortable with a federal takeover even being a threat.”
Comstock and others said that revising the compact is critical to supporting Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld, who has generally won praise for aggressive changes in his first year in the job.
“We need a new structure with the compact so Paul J. Wiedefeld can do the job that he’s been hired to do,” Comstock said.
Delaney said it’s hard to push through genuine changes because Metro is suffering a gradual decline without a dramatic, one-time crisis requiring immediate action.
“It can kind of limp along for a while, and that’s why you don’t see something being done right away,” Delaney said. “It’s death by a thousand cuts.”
Photo credit: Bonnie Jo Mount/Washington Post