It’s been many months since Governor Bob McDonnell made a play to take half of the Virginia seats on the WMATA Board away from Northern Virginia, but if you thought the issue was dead, it’s far from it.
After deferring a vote three times, the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission (NVTC) will decide whether to accept or reject the proposal on Thursday night.
Keep the power over the Washington metropolitan area’s transit in the hands of people in the Washignton metropolitan area. If you live in Virginia, contact NVTC to ask Chairman Cathy Hudgins and the other commissioners to vote for Resolution #2157 and oppose any transfer of control over WMATA from Northern Virginia to Richmond.
McDonnell can still influence WMATA and work to improve safety and accountability without seats on the Board. He could start by telling riders and officials what he thinks should be done differently, and ask the current Board members to adopt his recommendations. There’s a good chance they might do just that. But instead, he’s spending all this effort on a power grab, which makes it sound like his motives aren’t really to improve Metro.
The four Virginia representatives on the WMATA Board are officially chosen by NVTC, which contains local officials from the cities and counties in Northern Virginia state delegates and Senators, and a representative of the Governor.
Since WMATA’s founding, NVTC has always put two representatives from Fairfax and one from Arlington and Alexandria on the Board. The state government in Virginia never asked for representation. They also never volunteered to pitch in any money to deal with budget crises.
Meanwhile, down in Richmond, they pretty much ignored Metro. In fact, NVTC organized a special tour on June 30 and July 1 to show legislators and other officials from around the state what it’s like to take transit in Northern Virginia. For many, it’s simply far outside their experience.
When local governments came up with funds to avoid service cuts this year, that came from Arlington, Fairfax, Alexandria, and the Cities of Fairfax and Falls Church out of their own budgets. The state didn’t lift a finger. After DC came along, the whole thing almost fell apart because Governor O’Malley was reluctant to pitch in. It took constant petitioning by Maryland residents and three Washington Post editorials to get the Governor to go along. If he hadn’t been up for reelection this year, who knows what might have happened. That would have meant big cuts to rail and bus service on top of all the fare increases we had.
The difference is that local officials are making the budget decisions and local officials, not state officials, serve on the Board. If we’d had to go to the Virginia state government for help to avoid service cuts, good luck with that.
Yet, this spring, Virginia Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton asked NVTC to hand over half the Board seats to the Governor. He claims that Virginia now pays 52% of the funds for Metro, once the $50 million match to federal money is factored in. But that doesn’t hold up. Instead, based on NVTC’s analysis, the real number is about 28%, and has been only 24% over the last 10 years.
Why the difference? Most of it comes from the state add-on gas tax. Years ago, the state legislature agreed to increase the gas tax in Northern Virginia alone and dedicate that revenue to transit. That had to be a state law because in Virginia counties have very little power and can raise almost no taxes on their own except property tax. By comparison, Maryland counties can raise many taxes, like the income tax.
Ultimately, the state collects the money, but it’s all coming from Northern Virginia. The Governor isn’t personally deciding how much to allocate between Metro and freeways in Roanoke the way Maryland’s governor does. It’s like my bank saying they should control what I cook for dinner, since I paid for the groceries using funds at their bank. Sure, the money is there, but it’s my money. Likewise, the money for the add-on gas tax is Northern Virginia’s money. The state just collects it because that’s how things work in Virginia.
Just because he doesn’t have appointments to the WMATA Board doesn’t mean Governor McDonnell can’t try to help improve Metro. If they had the seats, what would McDonnell or his representatives do? That’s the big question that’s never been answered. Why can’t he simply send some suggestions along to the four Northern Virginia representatives?
He has staff on the Tri-State Oversight Committee. He can call press conferences. He can have people issue white papers. He can write op-eds. He would be welcome to guest post here on Greater Greater Washington about what he’d like to see done. But there’s no way to know if he or his people actually have any ideas, since they haven’t bothered to suggest some. Let’s start there. How about it, Bob? What’s your recommendation?