Photo by chesbayprogram.

The press has been thoroughly covering the impact of interim WMATA GM Richard Sarles’ proposed modified FY2011 operating budget, which has significant and immediate impacts on riders, but the much more important story from yesterday’s Board meeting is how the O’Malley Administration kneecapped prospects for repairing Metro’s aging infrastructure.

To almost everyone’s surprise, the 5-year capital program discussed yesterday suddenly had $460 million less for the next five years than previously planned. Board members and jurisdictional staff alike have confirmed what we pretty much knew: this is all coming from Maryland.

DC and Virginia are prepared to contribute their share of capital improvements necessary to replace aging and potentially unsafe railcars, fix elevators and escalators, upgrade power systems to accommodate 8-car trains, replace buses, and more.

However, because the O’Malley Administration decided they don’t want to contribute, WMATA has scaled back the expectations from all three jurisdictions. DC’s Jim Graham said, “DC is going to get a windfall that we don’t want.”

WMATA has identified over $11 billion in capital needs for repairs and upgrades to maintain the current system over the next 10 years. The new plan only funds about $4 billion for the first 5 years, leaving $7 billion for the second half of the decade. It’s very unlikely that after making much lower commitments, area governments will suddenly be able to dramatically scale up their contributions.

On Wednesday, Congress held a hearing on WMATA safety; if I’d known about this in time, I would have told the committee that the biggest threat to the safety of federal workers right now is the bad fiscal management and poor priorities of the O’Malley Administration. Hopefully no more people will die because of obsolete railcars, failing track signals, or crowded platforms because of Governor O’Malley.

As Craig explained yesterday, WMATA staff also presented three options for renewing the Metro Matters agreement, all of which are much worse than the current agreement, dropping the long-term commitments for capital funding that has helped Metro make much more progress on repairs than it could before. DC and Virginia were prepared to renew that agreement with only minor changes; the O’Malley Administration has sabotaged that as well.

It’s disappointing that WMATA staff just went along with this. They didn’t raise the alarm to the Board, saying that the capital program was being compromised; they just went and trimmed the program. When questioned, interim GM Richard Sarles agreed that WMATA needs the money, but said that they are working from what’s available. Clearly frustrated, Arlington’s Chris Zimmerman said “The money is never there, you have to go get it.”

When Sarles came in, there was much hope that he could make the tough decisions since he wouldn’t be afraid to lose his job. Maybe he still will internally, but he doesn’t seem willing to push back against the “race to the bottom” situation where the cheapest jurisdiction dictates the quality of transit service for its own residents and the rest of the region.

It’s also disappointing that Board Chairman Peter Benjamin has been pushing this plan to sacrifice safety, and doing so in secret. There weren’t any public hearings on the capital budget. In fact, Maryland kept secret the fact that they had requested to defer some FY2010 capital payments for months, and WMATA staff were complicit in keeping quiet. While Benjamin was loudly pronouncing that taking money from capital was “mortgaging our future,” on behalf of the O’Malley Administration he was simultaneously telling WMATA that Maryland wouldn’t make its payments.

The WMATA Board should not permit this utter capitulation. We know why Maryland is in trouble: they mortgaged their transportation solvency to build the ICC and widen I-95. Now they want to put the pain of these choices on everyone who wasn’t contributing to traffic by riding transit, and everyone who doesn’t even live in Maryland.

The Maryland legislature passed a bill to form a committee to recommend long-term transportation funding solutions, to report back after the election. If Governor O’Malley and other state leaders don’t want to make the tough calls now, they should do the same thing they did for the road projects: borrow the money themselves, instead of making WMATA do it, and pay that money back with the funds raised if the Legislature can pass a fix next year.

The three jurisdictions can still renew the Metro Matters agreement as is, with direct contributions from DC and Virginia as they are prepared to do, and borrowing from Maryland that is a state obligation rather than a WMATA obligation. If Governor O’Malley isn’t willing to do this, voters should seriously question whether he’s capably leading the State of Maryland or not.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Surface Transit. 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 here are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.