Local leaders bemoan potential WMATA funding cut

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Local leaders bemoan potential WMATA funding cut
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By Chris Teale (File photo)

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority has come under fire in recent months for its poor safety record and a lack of improvement, and now Congress is discussing cutting $50 million in federal funding to the beleaguered transit agency.

WMATA currently receives $150 million annually from the federal government to aid with safety and infrastructure improvements, a figure that is matched by Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia and municipalities. The money is received under a 10-year agreement between WMATA and the government, which is now in its seventh year. But the U.S. House of Representatives’ Appropriations Committee is considering a bill that would cut that figure to $100 million.

It comes after the Senate Finance Committee already passed a funding bill for the full $150 million. The uncertainty is something that makes local leaders in Alexandria — a city where there are four Metrorail stations as well as numerous Metrobus connections, Metroway and the just-approved Potomac Yard Metro station — very uneasy, even with moves afoot on Capitol Hill to restore funding.

“It’s very disappointing,” said City Councilor Tim Lovain, who is also a member of the city’s transportation commission. “I am optimistic that in the end they will restore the funding, just because the needs are so great. There’s no question that WMATA has a lot of problems, but cutting their funding is not the way to solve those problems.

“There needs to be safety improvements, for example, and repairs, and they’re not going to get better until those problems are fixed, and that requires money. I’m cautiously optimistic that the funding will be restored in the end.”

It also comes just six months after Alexandria resident Carol Glover died after being trapped on a Metrorail train that became stuck just outside the L’Enfant Plaza Metro station as heavy smoke filled the train cars. Since then, WMATA has come under intense pressure for its safety record from the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Transit Administration.

“Obviously [Glover’s death] was a terrible tragedy for the region, and especially since it was a resident of Alexandria, we’re very interested in making sure that any cuts don’t compromise safety,” said Sandra Marks, the deputy director of the city’s department of transportation and environmental services. “That needs to be our No. 1 concern as we move forward. We’re obviously very interested in making that a priority for WMATA as well.”

At one stage, the House proposed slashing its appropriation to WMATA in half to $75 million, something that provoked bipartisan outrage from representatives from Virginia, Maryland and D.C., including U.S. Rep. Don Beyer (D-8), who represents Alexandria and parts of Arlington.

“We are deeply disappointed that the House of Representatives has chosen to cut $50 million from Metro and not fulfil the long-standing federal commitment critical to rider safety improvements,” said a joint statement from Beyer and Reps. Gerry Connolly and Barbara Comstock of Virginia, Steny Hoyer, Chris Van Hollen, Donna Edwards, John Sarbanes and John Delaney of Maryland and Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton of D.C.

“Reducing this funding breaks the 10-year federal commitment and jeopardizes the successful local, state and federal partnership. Millions of Americans — not just from the D.C. region, but from across the nation — depend on Metro, which is why Congress and the federal government have a responsibility to the operation, oversight and safety of the system. We will work with our House and Senate colleagues to restore this vital funding for Metro safety upgrades as the appropriations process moves forward.”

Lovain’s hope that WMATA will be successful in receiving its full level of federal funding is shared by Mayor Bill Euille, who serves as Alexandria’s representative on the WMATA board of directors. He said cutting funding intended for safety improvements is no way to improve performance, and the agency’s lobbyists and senior figures are working hard on Capitol Hill to get full funding restored.

“Absolutely and precisely, it’s akin to what the House Appropriations Committee did to Amtrak funding less than a couple of days after the train accident outside of Philadelphia,” Euille said. “The committee cut Amtrak’s funding by several hundred million dollars as well. It’s like, ‘Wait a minute.’ We need to be improving, not only for safety reasons, but the infrastructure of our rail system and roads and bridges and transportation systems throughout this nation.

“I think in the end, WMATA will prevail and get the full funding. There’s a lot of broad-based support, not only from our regional delegation in Congress but advocacy coming from various transportation organizations such as Northern Virginia Transportation Authority, the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission and others to encourage Congress to fully fund the system. They’ll be breaking their pledge and commitment that has been in place almost seven years, so I like to think that’s not how they want to do business moving forward.”

“Congress made a commitment to Metro and the Washington Metropolitan region to match local funding for our nation’s transit system,” Beyer added. “Thousands of tourists, commuters and federal employees rely on Metro as a safe and energy-conscious means of travel. It would be irresponsible and downright foolish — from the standpoint of traffic congestion and quality of life — to renege on that agreement.”

Euille said he thought WMATA would be highly unlikely to ask the city and the agency’s other funders — Virginia, Maryland, D.C. and Arlington, Fairfax, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties — for extra money. He also said there is no provision in the city budget, and that it would not be possible to give any more than the city already gives to WMATA.

“Let’s put it this way: If WMATA was to come to its compact members to ask us to make up the difference, it would be very difficult and challenging to do in light of our current budget restraints and limitations,” Euille said. “The city already pays more than its fair share to support the transit system. I just can’t imagine how, without creating a lot of pain and impacts to other services within the current city operations, where we could agree to make up that pro-rata share for this $50 million shortfall without it really having serious impacts to the city.

“It’s not something we’re planning, nor are we talking about at the moment because it hasn’t been requested of us, but I can tell you from our own budgeting we don’t have any funds set aside to take care of this if indeed WMATA were to come to us.”

In the worst case scenario, Alexandrians and their peers from around the region could be faced with a system that has safety upgrades implemented more slowly and a slowdown of purchasing the new 7000-series railcars, one of which has been in operation on the Blue Line. It is hard for those involved to find ways the city can make up any shortfall in service given its budget constraints.

“It’s hard to think about what kind of options the city would have, because there’s only one and you can’t build another one: there’s only one Metrorail system,” Lovain said. “Perhaps we could strengthen our own transit, our DASH system, more, but Metrorail is irreplaceable.”

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