Photo (of a different radio interview) by Waldo Jaquith on Flickr.

Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell repeatedly dodged questions yesterday about why he isn’t lobbying his fellow Republicans to save the funds for Metro’s safety repairs. He also showed a surprising ignorance of basic facts like whether WMATA has a permanent General Manager yet, while repeatedly calling for the region to give him power over its decisions.

McDonnell appeared on WTOP yesterday morning along with DC Mayor Vincent Gray and Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley. During one of the segments, interviewer Mark Segraves asked all three about the $150 million federal safety contribution and talk of closing Metro early on weekends.

Rather than really answering, McDonnell kept repeating Republican talking points about the need to cut the federal budget. He said he’d told “a couple” of Congresspeople “telephonically” that he’d like the Metro money saved, but he hasn’t actively lobbied them or even sent an official letter.

Instead, he continually insisted that he should get a seat on the WMATA Board because he contributes $50 million in matching funds. That’s a tiny fraction of what Northern Virginia puts in, and his administration has refused to commit to keeping that going, even if Congress doesn’t cut its own contribution.

But maybe it does make sense for the governor to have some involvement in Metro’s governance. McDonnell could demonstrate that the request is more than a political power play on his part by speaking up for Metro and showing even a basic understanding of the challenges it faces. When asked about late-night closures, he said:

I think we’ve got to get the new General Manager in place first. I think we need to have the revisions in the the governance structure that we’ve all agreed to need to be taken place first and then let that team decide how to reduce funds and make the system operate more safely and more efficiently. But I wouldn’t support it now until we’ve got the leadership changes made.

Someone should tell him that the new already General Manager is in place… and that the governance changes he himself is pushing includes changing the GM to a CEO.

McDonnell wants a voting seat on the Board, but his only response to most issues about problems facing Metro boils down to, “I won’t lift a finger to do anything about this important agency until I get the power I want.” He and his staff still haven’t demonstrated any willingness to deal with Metro’s problems or even much of an understanding of the details.

Why should Northern Virginia officials, who do work to solve these problems, do step up with funding, and do know what they’re talking about, give up one of their seats for this?

A chief executive needn’t know every specific detail about each agency, even one as important as Metro, but O’Malley and Gray both demonstrated a much better awareness.

Here’s a complete transcript of the segment, which begins at 29:00 on WTOP’s recording:

Segraves: First, on Metro funding. The Republicans in the House have suggested several cuts to trim the federal budget. One of them is on Metro funding: the $150 million a year matching funds that match each of you, your $50 million each. What are your thoughts on that, and what are you doing to try to restore or protect that funding, if you are trying to protect that funding?

McDonnell: First of all, I fully support the Republican House’s efforts to try to rein in the federal spending and federal debt. It’s an unstainable and immoral level of spending… This is one area where we’ve relied, since Tom Davis got that bill passed over a decade ago with $150 million coming from the federal government and 50 each from our 3 jurisdictions, we found a good formula to work together on a regional transportation project that actually helps federal workers get into work, so I think there is a nexus there. … Most of the areas of cuts I think I support. This is one I wish they would continue in place and make the other tough choices, like entitlements, like health care and other things …

Segraves: Did you talk to the Virginia delegation? Have you been lobbying them to try to restore this funding?

McDonnell: I’ve advised my congressman that I’d like him to look at some other areas to cut. But I fully spport the fact… that 60 billion is not enough. It’s not even close.

Segraves: But some are saying that you’re not doing evnoueh. That you could come out and talk not only to your congressman but the entire Virginia delegation and get them involved in this.

McDonnell: Well, I intend to let them know that that is not an area that I would like tham to cut. I’ve expressed that telephonically to a couple but what I’m more interested in right now is making sure Virginia gets a seat at the table.

Segraves: On the Metro board.

McDonnell: Yeah, absolutely. … We pay $50 million from the state of Virginia and I have no voice on that board. They’re all local…

Segraves: Virginia has a voice.

McDonnell: No, not as a state. We have local government people that have a voice. That’s different because we pay $50 million. Governor O’Malley and Mayor Gray are both supportive of this concept. The Washington Board of Trade has come up with a major restructural, governance change. We’ve all gotten on board with that. Our staffs are working together to implement that. And I think there are many changes that need to be made. So if we’re gonna fight for the money, we’ve gotta have major reforms in the way the place is governed, and I think we’re all on board with that because the safety record has not been good.


O’Malley: I support Governor McDonnell’s desire and the Greater Washington Board of Trade’s desire to reform that governing board at Metro. Maryland recently appointed Michael Barnes to be a Maryland representative. That was my appointment, because Maryland puts a lot of dollars into it. I think the governor should have the same direct responsibility.

Segraves: Metro is thinking about closing early to save money and to do rail work late at night. Are you in favor of Metro reducing their hours?

O’Malley: None of us are in favor of any sorts of service reductions, but tgese are the things we have to do in order to come through these recessionary times, and if they do have to make these reductions I hope they are temporary in nature. That’s what the governing board is for. …

What concerns me most as Governor McDonnell alluded to is the safety record at Metro. We still see a lot of the things that were designed at Metro 40 years ago are now breaking down. Most visibly are those escalators, and these are the things that should concern all of us.

Segraves: Mayor Gray, A lot of those late night riders originate in the District of Columbia, are coming out of bars and whatnot. Do you have an issue with Metro proposing to close early?

Gray: Well, clearly, I don’t support the idea of closing Metro early. It’s not just entertainment purposes, it connects people to jobs in the region as well. It gets people in and out of the city in a much more efficient fashion.

As far as the cuts to the support for the Metro, we’ve seen the consequneces of not being able to invest in the ways that we should have. We were the first ones on board, and now of course we all 3 are involved in this, in committing to $50 million a year. About a third of the ridership on Metro is federal workers. So it isn’t not just a handout to the region, Frankly, it’s supporting the federal presence in the District of Columbia and the surrounding area. And it’s a prudent investment. If we want to have the kind of world class Metro system that we’ve had for years, the investments have to be made. We’ve made our commitment and now we want the federal governemnt to step up and make theirs.

Segraves: Governor McDonnell, quickly, on Metro closing early?

McDonnell: I think we’ve got to get the new General Manager in place first. I think we need to have the revisions in the the governance structure that we’ve all agreed to need to be taken place first

and then let that team decide how to reduce funds and make the system operate more safely and more efficiently. But I wouldn’t support it now until we’ve got the leadership changes made.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). 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 in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.