On Monday, we published a post analyzing the impacts of the WMATA reform bill that Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-VA) introduced in Congress. Essentially, the bill provides funding to revamp the system — but that funding comes with strings attached.
The bill would grow WMATA's funding overall by reauthorizing the federal payments designated for repairs and maintenance at the same rate of $150 million per year, matched with $50 million each from DC, Maryland, and Virginia. It would also give $75 million a year for capital programs until FY2029, which would also be matched by the jurisdictions.
However, this money comes with certain requirements, including dissolving the WMATA board and replacing it with a five-member “reform board” with the power to cancel existing contracts and liabilities. The board would have representatives from DC, Maryland, and Virginia; a chair picked by the US Department of Transportation; and a fifth member picked by the rest from a set of nominees from USDOT. This slimmer board is tasked with devising a new and permanent compact.
The bill also removes jurisdictional veto, which currently gives DC, Maryland, or Virginia the power to shoot down actions by the board. WMATA would not be allowed to grow its operating budget or use capital to cover its operating expenses during the reform period. The effect of these changes would be to take some control from the from the cities, counties, and states in the region and put it into federal hands.
In addition, the bill would weaken worker powers by limiting their arbitration rights, and it also weakens the potential for future raises. It strengthens protections for whistleblowers, which may be needed considering the agency's treatment of its Inspector General.
For all of the details of what this bill will do, I suggest perusing David Alpert's post. Here's what some of our contributors think about it:
David Meni says:
Pardon for being overly cynical (I just went through a lot on the tax bill), but after looking this over a few times, the bill seems more like a union-busting bill masquerading as Metro reform. It doesn't solve the problems that Metro does have. Looking over the actual text of the bill, it's clear that 90 percent of it is a labor law, with a little restructuring of Metro with the “Reform Board” to make it look like a more politically-expedient WMATA reform bill. Comstock seems to think that WMATA's problems are almost exclusively a labor one.
One other interesting wrinkle that I think is actually a good idea: the bill instructs the General Services Administration to conduct a review and standardize the transit benefit rates across the federal government — the standard rate may not be less than 90 percent of the highest rate used by any agency or department, so in all likelihood this will increase the average transit benefit.
Ben Ross says:
This bill would give the board a majority of Republican-appointed members (two federal and one by the governor of Maryland) with no veto and the power to void union contracts. The proposal essentially is an effort to hold the DC area hostage — we will not give you any federal money unless you let us destroy its unions.
Jim Titus says:
Funding bills are supposed to start in the House, and this bill provides funding. The bill would need 60 votes to pass the Senate, and the crazy stuff would be stripped there, while some bitter pills would remain. If the House passes this bill it will pass a more tempered set of reforms with the same funding when it returns from the Senate.
Dan Malouff says:
In any reform situation, you're trading the pain of upheaval in exchange for trust that things will turn out OK when it's all over. This would be painful. Can we trust that it would make things better long-term? The funding is welcome news and has to be part of any reform discussion. Some limits on labor are clearly necessary and also have to be a part of any reform discussion, although one wonders whether limits this far-reaching are really necessary, or were politically inspired.
The big problem here is how this cuts out local control. Even after the reform period ends, almost all power over WMATA goes to the federal government, Annapolis, and Richmond. That's enormously problematic, because none of those agencies value transit as much as the people who ride it. It's a recipe for prioritizing cost-saving cuts over providing valuable transportation service, in perpetuity. This bill would control WMATA's costs but we can't trust that it would leave us with the Metro service we need. To reach that goal, it needs protections for service that are as strong as the protections for cost.
Dylan Scott, discussing health care versus tax cuts for billionaires, says “You can tell what a party really cares about by watching what they’re willing to pass, financing be damned.” That's instructive to transportation too. Annapolis and Richmond are happy to funnel billions towards never-ending highway expansions, year after year after year, but transit had better get its act together under a control board. So yeah, there's a lack of trust on that.
What do you think about Comstock's proposal?