Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

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On the same day Arlington learned it no longer had a seat on Metro’s regional board, I boarded the Orange line and found that I, too, was being denied a seat. Coincidence?

I don’t think we Arlingtonians are being narcissistic in bemoaning this month’s state-engineered demotion of County Board member Mary Hynes from true board member to alternate. It comes at a time when the subway depended upon by so many passengers and economic planners is threatening fare hikes. And when the dreaded words “track work” and “this train will disembark” are heard, it seems, almost daily.

The backbenching of Arlington on the 16-member Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority was officially accomplished by the intergovernmental Northern Virginia Transportation Commission. But the real lever of power was pulled in the fall when state Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton, after Richmond threatened to deny bucks for Metro unless the Commonwealth got voting representation, gave the nod to James Dyke. The commission then put Dyke and Fairfax Supervisor Catherine Hudgins on the board among the eight with full voting power, and Hynes will sit in the rear as an alternate.

The change marks the first time in Metro’s 36 years that Arlington (home to 11 Metro stops) is just an observer.

“Of course we’re disappointed,” Hynes told me. But she pledges to make Arlington’s viewpoints heard. “No one in the region disputes that Arlington has nurtured a spirit of regionalism in its approach to critical challenges,” she says.

Then comes the jab: “It’s also fair to say that Virginia to date,” she adds, “has had a far less keen interest in supporting vital transit services than have the founding Virginia WMATA jurisdictions — Alexandria, Arlington and Fairfax.”

A fight over funding for the economic engine of Metro is clearly brewing with Gov. Robert McDonnell and newly empowered Republicans in the General Assembly. Though McDonnell was elected by many rural downstaters who evince little sympathy for Joe and Jane commuter from suburban Arlington, the governor met last Friday with Washington’s mayor and his Maryland counterpart. They signed an agreement to meet annually to review Metro’s performance and the board’s effectiveness.

Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton says Metro’s board should behave less like a political body and more like a corporation. He told The Washington Post the state is focusing on improving safety, operations and governance. It is focusing less on new heavy-rail systems like Metro and more on cheaper alternatives such as van and bus use, telework and better traffic management.

But the bone of contention, according to Hynes, is adequate long-term funding. The Washington Metro is the largest urban system in the country without a dedicated revenue source, she says. That’s why she helped persuade the commission to approve a resolution calling on Virginia to “provide sustainable and dedicated revenues to support WMATA, in order to ensure the safety and reliability of the Metro system and theeconomic sustainability of our region.”

For us riders, the Metro system is creaky and aging, the crowded ride often bumpy, the escalators frequently idle. The electronic signs sometimes offer fiction. The Silver Line to Tysons and Dulles is underway, but without proper investment, it might worsen such discomforts.

I know Arlington is not regarded as a role model by everyone in the Commonwealth. But we’ve earned our seat-at least on some days.

 


Charlie Clark may be e-mailed at [email protected]