Connaughton (left) and McDonnell (right). Photo by VDOT.

The McDonnell administration is making a push to take some of Virginia’s WMATA Board seats away from Northern Virginia jurisdictions, which currently appoint elected officials to the Board.

In a letter to the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission (NVTC), Virginia Transportation Secretary Sean Connaugton wrote:

With the increase in [state] funding [for transit], plus the recent commitment of additional resources to improve the performance of the federally-mandated state safety oversight program, the Commonwealth believes it is appropriate to request that NVTC provide two of its four appointments to the WMATA Board of Directors, one Principal Director and one Alternate Director, to [the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation,] DRPT.

This would be a big setback for riders and the region. The Virginia members, being elected officials, are some of the most responsive and transparent members of the WMATA Board. It was the Virginia members who pushed for the proposed budget to be released and have most strongly opposed overuse of executive sessions, for example.

Northern Virginia counties also were the first to increase their support for transit after residents demanded it. Maryland, where the Governor answers to the entire state, was far more difficult. At least a tough reelection that depends on Montgomery and Prince George’s voters, coupled with strong support from the Post editorial board, persuaded Governor O’Malley not to raid transit.

In Virginia, the state government is already beholden to rural interests and refuses to let Northern Virginia govern itself as it sees fit. Northern Virginia is not Governor McDonnell’s base. He isn’t making this move because he wants to listen to riders and make the Board more responsive to our concerns. He doesn’t want to make transit better. He doesn’t seem to even believe in transit at all.

While WMATA faced its historic $190 million budget gap, Governor McDonnell never offered state assistance, and according to an NVTC member, Northern Virginia never really asked. Until now, it’s always been expected that Northern Virginia appoints the Board members and Northern Virginia finds the money if they want more transit service. In contrast, in Maryland, where the Board members are appointed by the Governor, the state pays the full WMATA bill.

There’s also been strong speculation that this is the objective of the Board of Trade/MWCOG commission that was created to “study WMATA governance” but didn’t include any representatives of riders or transit advocates. Some influential business figures would like to make WMATA more like MWAA: run through backroom deals by powerful insiders, completely unresponsive to residents, like when they pulled the rug out from under the Fairfax Connector.

Connaughton argues that the state will soon provide a little more than half (52.2%) of the funding for WMATA, including Virginia’s share of the $50 million per year in federal match and the existing discretionary and formula capital and operating funds that go to transit systems across the state.

However, this argument obscures several realities. As Connaughton notes, much of the money is allocated to Northern Virginia via a formula, worked out in the General Assembly through long negotiation. Northern Virginia allocates more of its money to transit, while the rest of the state gets more for roads.

Plus, this money is all Northern Virginia taxpayers’ money anyway, just collected by the state and then distributed in part to WMATA via NVTC. Overall, Northern Virginia residents pay more to the state in taxes than they get back.

Connaughton seems to threaten not to participate in the 6-year capital funding that continues after Metro Matters expires unless he gets control. Area Congressional representatives would probably not look kindly upon such a move. At the recent Senate hearing, Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), who sits on the appropriations subcommittee that handles transportation, expressed a strong feeling that the states and the District need to keep up their commitments to a state of good repair if Congress is going to continue making extra contributions.

Virginia, like Maryland, DC, and now the federal government, appoints four members to the WMATA Board: two voting Principal Directors and two nonvoting Alternate Directors. NVTC consists of 13 elected officials from Arlington (3), Alexandria (2), Fairfax County (5), Fairfax City (1), Loudoun (1), and Falls Church (1), 2 state Senators, 4 state delegates, and one appointed by the Governor.

NVTC then selects the four Board members. The current Principal Directors are Catherine Hudgins from Fairfax County and Chris Zimmerman from Arlington, and the Alternate Directors are William Euille from Alexandria and Jeff McKay from Fairfax County.

If the change were to go through, DRPT Director Thelma Drake, a former Republican Congresswoman from the Hampton Roads area and current resident of Norfolk, is expected to be chosen as the voting member. At their meeting last night, NVTC didn’t act on the proposal, but agreed to send a letter in response to Connaughton outlining their concerns about the idea. Most representatives were opposed to the proposal. One of the few supporters was Joe May, delegate from Loudoun and Clarke Counties and Chair of the Virginia House Transportation Committee.