Last week’s METRO Summit convened about 100 regional leaders and business people to discuss the future of Metrorail. Hosted by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) and the Greater Washington Board of Trade (BOT), the “Metrorail at 40: Restoring a World Class System” summit was supposed to look ahead, but governance, safety, reliability, and deferred maintenance issues loomed large during the dialogue. The three state compact, signed by the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia more than 40 years ago, that created today’s Metrorail system, stands as a testament to regional planning.
That same compact, though, created a governance system for Metro that many critics fault for some of today’s challenges. A 2010 governance study by a joint COG/BOT committee made a number of recommendations to improve governance and, to its credit, the Metro Board did create a governance committee and made some changes, but challenges remain. Leif Dormsjo, D.C. Transportation director, said that lack of needed information given to the Board, while probably not willful, led to misdiagnosis of core problems. Virginia Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne lauded Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld and the board for Metro’s recent proactive and responsive approach to safety issues. There was general agreement that, as painful as the recent shutdown was, it was the right thing to do. However, there was shock when current Metro Board chairman Jack Evans, a D.C. City Council member, suggested that entire lines of Metro might have to be shut down for up to six months for repairs.
Chairman Evans’ list of needs for the system was extensive. Funding, labor negotiations, funding, new railcar purchases, funding, new tunnel crossing at Rosslyn, and funding were his basics. He said that we can “run the system today with what we have, but it won’t be the system we want it to be.” He demanded $300 million a year from the federal government, and said that the capital needs require $1 billion a year from a dedicated funding source. He added that Virginia and Maryland will need to increase their contribution share, although he does not support raising fares or decreasing service. For reference, Fairfax County’s operating subsidy for all Metro services increased by almost 13 percent, to $129.3 million in the proposed FY 2017 budget. The funds, from a variety of sources, include General Fund monies, applied state aid, and gas taxes. Metro’s FY 2017 capital requirements from Fairfax County total $35 million, an amount that likely will change with a new Capital Funding Agreement expected this summer. Clearly, Fairfax County’s investment in Metro service is significant.
The Metro system links the region together; indeed, Metro has become a way of life in many jurisdictions. A safe and reliable system is a critical link in the economic viability of the National Capital Region, and it must not fail. Forty years ago, today’s 100 mile-plus Metro system was a dream. Without significant funding, governance changes, and redoubled efforts by its member jurisdictions, that dream is quickly becoming a nightmare.
Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor, in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be emailed at email@example.com.