The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority is planning to obliterate all pretenses of holding the line on agreed-upon additional subsidies from local jurisdictions, the Falls Church City Council learned at its meeting Monday night. F.C. City Manager Wyatt Shields told the Council that Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) is proposing to increase the annual subsidy from the City by a whopping 11.8 percent, amounting to a more than $700,000 annual increase, or up roughly two cents on the real estate tax rate (currently at $1.355 per $100 of assessed valuation) for property owners in Falls Church.
The demand, which will come if the WMATA board approves its draft budget at its upcoming Feb. 28 month meeting, blows past the three percent annual cap on local jurisdiction subsidy increases that WMATA agreed to just last summer, when the jurisdictions of Maryland, Washington, D.C. and Virginia agreed to pour $500 million into WMATA’s ailing Metro rail system.
Even with that cap, the City of Falls Church was prepared to foot the bill for an extra $400,000 this budget cycle, given the need to catch up on $124,000 of some delayed payments from last year, and the City Council was notified of that by Shields last November. Even with that hit, Shields said that if other elements of the City budget fall in line, including the annual transfer to the City schools, the Fiscal Year 2020 budget could require no additional real estate tax rate increase.
The latest news from WMATA, however, could wipe out such plans. Shields told the News-Press in comments Wednesday that the projected 11.8 percent increase could be very disruptive to the budget.
The latest round of WMATA’s proposed “operating subsidy allocation” increases, rounding out to 9.5 percent through the region, has jurisdictions around the region up in arms. Proposed increases for Fairfax County, for example, is 15.5 percent and Maryland’s Montgomery County is 13 percent. Shields said that representatives of the eight impacted jurisdictions are putting their heads together to coordinate opposition.
Shields said he didn’t think the proposed increase would wind up being as high as currently projected, but that it still could be devastating.
In fact, D.C. is pushing WMATA to restore late night service, cut in 2016, which would cost the system up to $45 million more. In fact, the limit on the late night service is due to expire in June, and the District has said it would use its jurisdictional veto to make sure the late night hours are restored, according to a report last week by Stephen Repetski in his Metro Reasons column on Greater Greater Washington. The D.C. delegation on the WMATA board is heavily weighted in the District’s favor, as its current chairman is D.C. councilman Jack Evans.
He’s been joined by D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser who has also spoken out strongly for restoring the later hours, noting among other things (D.C. nightlife businesses) that the shorter hours hurt options available for lower income late-night workers. The system’s Federal Transit Administrator, however, has weighed in against a restoration of the longer hours.
Instead of running to 3 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, the Metro trains now run only until 1 a.m., and on weeknights until 11:30 p.m. (instead of midnight), and to 11 p.m. on Sundays. The shorter hours were deemed necessary to provide ample time for WMATA to play catch-up on years of neglected maintenance.
In a Jan. 24 WMATA staff memo, it was noted that failing to find cost savings elsewhere in the system would put pressure on the legal limit to annual subsidy increases by jurisdictions of three percent, notwithstanding that, of course, that limit is already completely blown away.
Shields told the News-Press that “it is in the fine print” in the three percent limit agreement where WMATA is finding legal grounds for a wholesale overthrow of such a constraint.
Falls Church Council member David Snyder, who has historically taken the point for the City in matters related to regional transportation, told the News-Press in a written statement this week, “Unfortunately, the state mandated definition of the three percent operating subsidy limit, we have been informed, contains some conditions that have now become real.”
He said, “We have said regionally and privately that while we must live under the state definition, we believe that three percent ought to mean three percent. What is even worse is that there are Metro budget proposals to exceed even the loose state definition of three percent. Those additional budget proposals, regardless of merit, have my complete opposition.”
Snyder, Shields and the City staff are working together on a formal letter from the City of Falls Church to WMATA on the matter of the proposed subsidy increase.
Meanwhile, WMATA is also dealing with the fiscal impact of the recent month-long federal government shutdown, which ripped a huge in its projected Metro fares for that period. The impact that may have on WMATA’s need for subsidies has not yet been taken into account.
Shields noted that WMATA’s recent keen interest in collaborating with the City of Falls Church and Virginia Tech for the economic development of its acreage at the West Falls Church Metro station is driven by its need to improve ridership at that station, and as such its impact on WMATA revenues will be much longer term.