Our View: WMATA — what a mess

Our View: WMATA — what a mess

(File photo)

Fixers of fiscal and operational messes are seldom beloved, as former D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams could attest. Such is the fate of Paul Wiedefeld, who in his role as general manager has the unenviable task of improving the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s safety, reliability and fiscal house — all at once.

The pain from this Herculean endeavor is being felt throughout the D.C. region. According to Wiedefeld’s fiscal 2018 budget proposal, 8 percent of WMATA’s workforce would lose their jobs, about 1,000 workers in all.

Service has been curtailed during SafeTrack closures, which has resulted in some memorable traffic snarls this year. Ridership is down, as are revenues. All local jurisdictions are being asked to contribute more to WMATA’s fiscal 2018 budget.

Rail service could be curtailed during both on- and off-peak times and at less frequented stations, and numerous bus lines may be eliminated.

That’s a lot of shared pain.

While we agree generally with the track Wiedefeld has WMATA on, we do have some quibbles around the edges about equity. For starters, Alexandria is being asked to pay 15.7 percent of Virginia’s contribution to WMATA’s 2018 operating budget — $39.5 million out of $251.4 million total — but we have only 3 of 25 stations, or 12 percent, and only 14.6 percent of track miles in the region.

We think city leaders should try to negotiate our contribution down to be more proportional. A few million saved could be used for schools or social services. Imagine the joy Alexandria residents would feel if our taxes were lowered instead of increased.

Second, we think the federal government should be paying part of WMATA’s operating expenses. Right now, the Federal Transit Administration does provide federal grants to transit systems around the country for preventive maintenance. Metro has historically received $31 million per year, though that number has been bumped up for the last two years of safety work. While helpful, that’s less than 2 percent of WMATA’s annual budget.

Here’s the catch: WMATA estimates that 45 percent of those working in D.C. and parts of Arlington take Metro to work. A large percentage of those riders work for the federal government. Thus, the federal government directly benefits from our regional metro system, which trails only New York City in the U.S. in the number of annual riders, in a way it doesn’t from any other system in the country. Yet it doesn’t contribute at all to WMATA’s operating expenses. That seems like a bad deal for the entire region.

Third, there were preliminary reports that Alexandria’s Metroway bus line that runs along U.S. Route 1 up to the Pentagon City Metro station could be on the chopping block.

While this route’s per rider subsidy of almost $8 is not sustain- able in the long term, it was only opened two years ago — and in its complete form just last summer — and needs to be better advertised with a longer trial before being reconsidered. Fortunately, Metroway survived this round of cuts.

Finally, the uncertainty surrounding WMATA’s historic operations and long-term viability — ridership was down from its peak in 2009 even before SafeTrack — coupled with uncertain fund- ing streams leaves us wary of Alexandria’s pending Potomac Yard Metro station.

Officials must be triply careful and apply tremendous scrutiny to the financials surrounding the project before proceeding. Alexandria’s potential investment is too large to move ahead without surety.