Photo by England on Flickr.

The McDonnell administration has suddenly decided to revamp the way it handles transportation funding, sending Northern Virginia cities and counties into a last-minute and potentially expensive scramble. The reason appears to be politics and a desire to wrest power from Northern Virginia, which is politically not aligned with the governor.

The cities and counties of Northern Virginia have a partnership they say works very well. They pool money they receive for transit, and give it to a state-created entity called the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission. They all have votes on NVTC’s board, and NVTC handles distributing money for Metro rail and bus service, VRE, and local transit.

State law codifies many elements of this arrangement, but officials of the state Department of Rail and Public Transportation recently informed Northern Virginia leaders that they were going to unilaterally change it on very short notice. Instead of giving money to NVTC, DRPT would give it directly to WMATA and to each local jurisdiction.

Change is too hasty, very disruptive, say jurisdictions

According to a letter from Fairfax County, Arlington County, the cities of Alexandria, Falls Church and Fairfax, and NVTC’s board, DRPT announced this change and, with only 10 days’ notice, threatened that they would just take away all of the state funding for the coming year unless the jurisdictions immediately agreed to the change.

This is very disruptive, Northern Virgnia leaders say, not least of which because they already approved their budgets for next year and none of this is part of their budgets. They might need to pay for extra staff to handle the paperwork involved, approve agreements to hand the money back to NVTC, and more, all at the last minute.

There is a lot of paperwork, auditing, and other administrative hassle involved in receiving state and federal money and giving money to WMATA and other transit agencies. Northern Virginia jurisdictions say that having NVTC handle all of this saves them a lot of time and money, especially for the very small cities like Falls Church and City of Fairfax.

They also argue this move might violate state law and interferes with a study going on right now to figure out whether or how to consolidate or modify the constellation of transportation-related associations in the area, each of which represents a different but often overlapping set of cities and counties.

DRPT isn’t offering to become the agency “on the hook” for Metro funding; Northern Virginia jurisdictions still will be. DRPT just doesn’t want to give the money to the agency, NVTC, which the cities and counties set up to handle this. For example, Virginia jurisdictions have to pay a quarterly WMATA bill on July 1, but DRPT doesn’t have the money yet since the state fiscal year begins at the same time, said Kala Quintana, communications director for NVTC. The cities and counties keep a balance of about $90 million at NVTC so that it can front the money and then get reimbursed from DRPT.

Why? Power, it seems

Why is DRPT doing this? DRPT officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but according to the Fairfax County Board meeting’s staff memo (page 253), “Director Drake noted that this was being done to ensure that each local government and agency understands how much money it is receiving from DRPT.”

This certainly makes the move sound like retaliation for the way Northern Virginia pushed back against the McDonnell administration’s efforts to take more power over WMATA for itself and away from the local cities and counties.

When the administration asked to control both voting seats on the WMATA board (and then settled for just one), DRPT argued that the state contributed over half the money for transit. But NVTC countered with a memo explaining how, in fact, most of that money comes from Northern Virginia taxes that the state collects but which go back to Northern Virginia transit by state law.

It has been the local jurisdictions, not the state, which has come up with more money to avoid service cuts during the last few difficult WMATA budgets. This is different from Maryland, where the state government controls WMATA board seats but also pays for transit service out of the state budget. If DRPT were prepared to offer extra money in tough years to keep transit running, that might be one thing, but they haven’t yet.

Instead, the McDonnell administration has repeatedly shown that it doesn’t really care much about whether transit thrives or withers, and therefore will use transit funding as a cudgel to achieve other policy objectives. McDonnell held the Silver Line hostage to try to keep construction jobs away from union workers, and seemed unconcerned about whether that might scuttle the whole project anyway.

His administration repeatedly pleads poverty on the Silver Line while lavishly funding unnecessary road projects in rural Virginia. It’s fairly clear that there’s politics at work, just as there was when New Jersey governor Chris Christie killed the ARC tunnel and then, it turned out, lied about the reasons, or when several other governors turned down high-speed rail money or killed local transit projects.

The Commonwealth Transportation Board, a statewide board of gubernatorial appointees, has the chance to pause this bull in a china shop proposal until cooler heads can prevail. They’ll review the policy on Wednesday.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.