Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: City of Falls Church—Canary in the Metro Coal Mine?

Before modern detection means, coal miners would use canaries in cages to determine whether the levels of toxic and explosive gasses were rising to the danger point. If the canary kept singing, then things were probably all right. If the canary stopped singing — or worse yet, fell over — immediate action was necessary. Today, Falls Church must play a similar role with regard to Metro service and funding.

As a regular rider and representative of Falls Church, I used to express concerns about service disruptions in regional meetings, but was always met with responses that these were just one-off situations. Now, finally, the problems with Metro are becoming better publicized and understood. Among them are: poor and unreliable service causing ridership losses; safety lapses; deferred maintenance; inconsistent and inadequate funding; and feuding within the Board of Directors as members seek to protect their own jurisdictional interests at the expense of others.

The total solution remains elusive, although some widely-publicized steps are being considered. The current General Manager seems willing to try to reverse the downward slide—but at a high cost to riders, especially commuters, through reduced service and increased fares. Major interests have proposed governance changes. And regional political leaders are talking about more funding, but what form that will take — and when — are anything but certain.

Meanwhile, Falls Church, which has consistently tried to be a positive voice in regional bodies, is uniquely underserved by Metro with no Metro station in our borders and very little direct economic development from Metro, compared to every other Northern Virginia Metro funding jurisdiction. Even our minimal bus service has been cut. Yet, through this year, we still contributed financially, just as we always have. Now, unless things change, we face the risk of dramatically higher subsidies with no commensurate value — subsidies that will compete even more with our other governmental needs for capital projects, education, and public safety.

Considering these negative developments, it is time to demand more return value for our investments in Metro, or reconsider the City’s funding for Metro. The most urgent issue relates to rapidly increasing Falls Church funding obligations for Metro, which must come out of our local government budget. For FY 18, the budget just passed, net of all other revenue sources we had to allocate $962,000 for Metro, or additional cents on the tax rate. The annual Metro subsidy funding obligation will climb to more than $1 million in succeeding years. Not only is this a financial burden, it consumes funds that could be used on local transportation priorities, such as neighborhood traffic calming.

Recognizing these realities, I have stated clearly in regional bodies that this level of local governmental support is no longer sustainable for us. I gather that the larger jurisdictions may be beginning to understand this perspective and to talk more about this issue.

So far, our efforts to restore bus service have been futile: the argument being that a larger neighboring jurisdiction provided more funding for the line that also served us, and that entity was satisfied with the reduction in service. But, through the Route 7 Bus Rapid Transit project now in the planning stages, we may be able to increase service to our citizens and businesses by putting our City directly on a well-served and attractive regional transit line, almost as if we had a Metro station in our downtown.

Another opportunity for Metro to show us value is for a partnership with the City of Falls Church that assists and supports us in economic development near George Mason High School. Such assistance and support would benefit our City in tax generation, but would also help Metro through increasing ridership and parking revenues now lost at West Falls Church with the launch of the Silver line.

Finally, long term operating and capital revenue shortfalls must be addressed. In my opinion, neither should be the responsibility of NOVA local governments, already carrying the load for providing most governmental services. Instead, Richmond and Washington need to come forward with revenue. And if regional revenues are needed, my preferred option would be an add on to the regional sales tax and to establish a floor on the regional gas tax designated for transit funding to reduce the lost revenue from the reduction in gasoline prices.

Like the canary in the coal mine due to our small size, Falls Church often experiences growing problems earlier than other larger jurisdictions. This is certainly true for Metro. So, now is the time to continue to sharpen our messaging and engagement relating to Metro. In doing so, we can help find responsible solutions and achieve more value for our citizens at least equal to our Metro-related costs. The entire region will be benefit from lessons we learn and positive outcomes we achieve as a result.


David Snyder is a member of the Falls Church City Council.