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Washington Metro May Finally Fix Its 40-Year-Old Funding Problem

The transit agency has long been divided along regional lines. But it looks like local leaders may be able to put aside those differences to provide the troubled agency with long-term funding.

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After years of rapidly deteriorating service, Washington Metro, the transit agency that serves the nation’s capital and its Maryland and Virginia suburbs, has been slowly making improvements. It fixed problematic tracks, added some new railcars, improved its financial book-keeping and started offering customers refunds when trains were excessively late.

But those are mostly short-term fixes. What has eluded Metro for decades – since it was founded in 1976 – was a dedicated funding stream that it could bank on when doing long-term planning. It’s something that’s standard for nearly all transit agencies, but in the Washington region, officials from the District, Maryland and Virginia couldn’t agree on how it would work.

That appears to be changing, as lawmakers from all three jurisdictions have recently come closer to earmarking dedicated funds for the transit agency. 

Metro has said it needs another $500 million of dependable funding a year to fix its aging and failing infrastructure. Now it looks like that goal may finally be within reach. Within the last several weeks:

  • Virginia lawmakers approved legislation to spend $154 million a year for Metro. The state’s newly installed governor, Ralph Northam, said he would ask legislators to find a different source for the money, because the current plan diverts money from other transportation projects in the northern Virginia suburbs.
  • Legislative leaders in Maryland committed publicly to channeling $167 million annually to the transit agency, which would match Metro’s request. Legislation that had been moving in Annapolis previously would have provided most, but not all, of that amount. Supporters say Gov. Larry Hogan backs paying the full funding request.
  • Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser proposed a budget that would fund the city’s recurring Metro payments of $178.5 million from a variety of sources, including a quarter-cent sales tax hike, higher restaurant and hotel taxes, and higher taxes on Uber and Lyft rides. (If Washington imposed a ride-hailing tax to help transit, it would join a growing number of cities, including Chicago and Boston, that have funded transportation programs those taxes.) Several councilmembers previously objected to the city’s share being so high, but they have backed off threats to send less to Metro.
The advanced commitments would make it easier for Metro to issue bonds to pay for big-ticket items like new rail cars and buses, station improvements and track upgrades.

Metro and its regional backers had been calling on a dedicated funding stream for years. One of the most talked about ideas was the idea of a regional sales tax to cover the metropolitan area. But that posed logistical and political problems, because each of the jurisdictions takes a different approach to taxation.

So Metro leaders set out a funding goal and let it to the jurisdictions to decide how to meet their shares.

Former U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood bolstered the case for new, reliable funding for infrastructure upgrades in a report to then-Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe last November.

“The Metrorail system opened in 1976 and for many years it performed well because the tracks, stations and other equipment were mostly new. But now the system is 40 years old, and much of it needs renewal or replacement,” LaHood wrote. “Unfortunately, the funders that pay for [Metro’s] capital program have grown accustomed to contributing at a level adequate for a new system, but far too low for an aging system.”

“[Metro’s] infrastructure is aging and needs renewal, and the funding it receives today is not enough to get this done. Not even close,” he added.

If all the funding does come through as expected, it would be another sign that the agency is turning a corner under the leadership of Paul Wiedefeld, who became general manager in late 2015. When Wiedefeld took the helm, Metro faced declining ridership, federal scrutiny over its safety practices, questions over how it tracked finances, and routine delays caused by a series of infrastructure failures, from track fires to broken car doors.

Wiedefeld made safety a priority and turned heads when, just a few months into his tenure, he shut down the entire subway system for more than a day to address an urgent safety concern. Later, he implemented a year-long track safety improvement program that closed parts of different subway lines for weeks at a time. Metro has also scaled back late-night service to provide more time for crews to maintain tracks overnight.

Last fall, Metro reported that those changes, among others, helped improve the system’s reliability. Trains were offloaded 40 percent less than the previous year, and fire-and-smoke incidents declined by 20 percent.

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