Jack Evans, DC Councilmember and chair of the WMATA Board, is making noise. He’s shouting that Metro needs $25 billion to fix everything that needs fixing. On Friday, members of Congress accused him of “political theater” and “rampant parochialism.” But perhaps some theater is just what Metro needs right now?
Let’s leave aside the irony of two members of the United States House of Representatives decrying “political theater.” Gerry Connolly, one of those leveling the attack, is not an unserious person and has done a tremendous amount for our region and for Metro. In fact, on the Fairfax Board of Supervisors, he unflaggingly pushed the Silver Line through decades of studies and inaction, and he deserves a lot of credit for it happening.
Connolly was upset specifically because Corbett Price, the other WMATA board voting member from DC, made a provocative suggestion. He posited that if Virginia doesn’t step up to fund Metro, perhaps DC should veto the opening of the Silver Line to Dulles and Loudoun County. Needless to say, Connolly isn’t happy about this idea.
I don’t want Metro to cancel the Silver Line. Price and Evans don’t either.
They were saying that Metro is in a crisis, and Virginia didn’t seem very eager to fix it. Evans, Price, DC CFO Jeff DeWitt, and others have suggested a regional sales tax to give Metro a reliable funding source. Mostly, that proposal was met with hemming and hawing from both Annapolis and Richmond.
In a nutshell, this is how the discussion has gone:
DC leaders: Hey, the house is on fire! We should put out the fire!
Maryland Governor Larry Hogan: I don’t think we should. On second thought, I’m okay with if if Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties pay for the firefighting work, but I don’t want to.
Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe: I think our house should demonstrate it can take steps to improve its structural integrity before we put the fire out.
Who’s job is it to fix Metro?
The buck stops with nobody. DC, Maryland, and Virginia (a collection of Northern Virginia cities and counties, more specifically) share the governance of Metro, which means no chief executive can take decisive action to fix it, and also no chief executive is personally blamed if it fails.
Riders get angry at Metro for its failures, not at McAuliffe, Hogan, and DC mayor Muriel Bowser for not pushing for fixes.
So, Evans and Price are trying to make people pay attention by being controversial. It’s not surprising that’s rubbing some other leaders the wrong way, but has something else worked better?
The last two board chairs, Tom Downs and Mort Downey, were not politicians and not loud. They were transit experts who ... um, hired their friend Rich Sarles to run the place for a few years, during which time, unbeknownst to nearly everyone, the system got even worse.
I can understand the impulse to keep politics out of Metro, but we had not-politics and the problem did not improve in any way. So Evans and Price tried to pressure Virginia using the Silver Line. Perhaps that was a good tactic, or perhaps not, but doing nothing was not a good tactic either.
Should the Silver Line be under negotiation?
Their argument about the Silver Line isn’t totally crazy. Based on the formula that decides how much various jurisdictions pay for Metro, even though the Silver Line extension is entirely in Virginia, DC and Maryland will pay some of the cost of running it. Starting the Silver Line also, sadly, precipitated a crisis where Metro suddenly couldn’t get enough railcars out on the tracks each day.
Still, it’s dangerous for one jurisdiction to block new service in another. DC and Maryland do benefit from more people having access to Metro. The board might do one thing to help one jurisdiction this time, and another the next. Metro can only work if DC, Maryland, and Virginia are trying to work together, not at cross purposes. The Congressmembers accused DC’s reps of acting parochially, and the board needs less parochialism, not more.
(Connolly should also tell that to Maryland’s Michael Goldman, a paragon of parochialism on this board. Goldman suddenly announced that Maryland didn’t want to pay its share of the 5A bus to Dulles, for instance. He also stopped Metro from funding required retirement benefits and refused to fund upgrades to power systems to allow more 8-car trains.)
Conflict between jurisdictions is inherent to Metro’s structure
Metro is more like urban subway in most of the area inside the Beltway, and mostly a suburban park-and-ride commuter train outside. That could change in Tysons, eventually, and elsewhere, but there aren’t a lot of people living outside the Beltway who forego owning a car because Metro makes it easy enough to get places without one.
That means, as Metro is constituted now, there will always be some battles between DC, which wants more frequent service and service over more hours, and suburban jurisdictions where longer mid-day waits are less of an issue. There are always going to be budget fights about whether the parking fees should go up when fares do, or not. Or the maximum fare — riders going the longest distance don’t pay as much per mile as others. That’s either fair or not depending on your point of view.
Most of all, Metro needs all local governments to take Metro’s problems very seriously. A lot of experts think it could stop being financially viable within a year if something is not done. The Silver Line should not be canceled, but maybe a bombastic politician who gets headlines (along with a capable manager who’s actually fixing problems) could get this issue the attention it needs. Other methods haven’t worked any better.