As Metro board considers budget proposal, officials see a system needing change

2017-03-19 | The Frederick News-Post

March 19--As a kid growing up in Washington's Adams Morgan neighborhood, Jamie Raskin loved Metro because it let him explore the cultural diversity of the entire area.

It helped him meet a wide variety of people, and "opened my horizons to the world," he said.

Now a U.S. congressman, he sees a system plagued by deteriorating infrastructure, leading to deadly fires and crashes, derailments, broken escalators and communications problems.

Raskin, D-8th, wants to see the system return to its former glory.

"I still think of it as the jewel of the region," he said.

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority's Board of Directors is scheduled to vote on its budget proposal on Thursday. The authority oversees the Metro subway, bus and paratransit system for the Washington region.

The $3.1 billion budget includes a $1.82 billion operating budget and a $1.25 billion capital budget. It would require Maryland to pay $44 million, or about 10 percent, more than it did in fiscal 2017.

The current focus on the budget comes as Metro works on maintenance problems with the line, forcing temporary, disruptive closures, one segment at a time, as part of the SafeTrack program.

A Government Accountability Office report, released Tuesday, found that WMATA's planning for SafeTrack didn't collect enough data on the condition of the system or properly consider other alternatives to the work. The report also found that WMATA didn't come up with a plan to manage the project, because it felt the repairs needed to be started immediately.

The budget proposal originally cut train service during peak and non-peak hours, and eliminated about a dozen bus lines on which ridership had declined.

On March 6, WMATA General Manager Paul Wiedefeld released a new budget proposal that restored many of the bus lines. It only reduced the frequency of trains during peak periods, so trains would operate about eight minutes apart on all lines. Trains currently run six minutes apart during peak periods, and every two to four minutes apart at stations in the system's core, served by multiple train lines.

When the revised proposal was announced, Wiedefeld said in a statement, "I recognize that even with some relief for customers, this proposal is tough medicine for the region, jurisdictions, riders, and Metro employees, all of who must contribute to balance this budget."

Wiedefeld took over the troubled transit system in November 2015.

While Metro's performance doesn't have as direct an impact on Frederick County as on Montgomery and Prince George's counties or other parts of the Washington region, the county feels the results when the system underperforms.

About 40 percent of the Frederick County workforce commutes out of the county. Many of them travel to Montgomery County or other parts of the Washington area.

A functional Metro system is important to getting people to work, and deciding where they choose to live and work, County Executive Jan Gardner (D) said.

"If they're not on the Metro, they're sitting on [Interstate] 270," Gardner said.

Montgomery County Councilman Craig Rice (D) represents a district in northern Montgomery with many constituents who rely on Metro and I-270 to get to and from work.

The delays caused by Metro's maintenance deficiencies create problems for many workers, Rice said.

While many of Metro's riders are white-collar workers with some flexibility in when they work, many others are shift workers with tight schedules, he said. Consistent tardiness caused by Metro delays could cost those workers their jobs.

Metro can do many things to change its perception, but Rice said it will be difficult for the system to keep asking for more money without showing results.

The scope of Metro's influence on the Washington area makes the system's operation vital to the region's success.

"Metro is an irreplaceable asset. And you really cannot let it fail," Congressman John Delaney, D-6th, said.

The system serves about 4 million people over an area of about 1,500 square miles in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia.

On a given day, the system's Metrorail, Metrobus, and MetroAccess handicapped transportation service handle about 1.1 million customers, with 177 million trips projected in fiscal 2018, according to WMATA.

Metro's economic impact can be felt in its impact on real estate prices near stations, as well as the time workers lose in traffic on I-270 and other congested roads.

A December 2015 report by the chief financial officer of Washington, D.C., found that an unsafe, unreliable Metro system might cut $1 billion to $2 billion in tax revenue and economic growth.

A 2012 survey of Metro riders estimated that delays in the morning commute alone cost workers in the D.C. region $51 million to $61 million.

Without Metro, the Washington area would have by far the worst congestion and traffic in the country, Raskin said.

In his district, which includes parts of Frederick, Montgomery, and Carroll counties, he represents about 88,000 federal employees, as well as many other constituents who use the system for various reasons, he said.

Raskin and other Maryland officials cited those federal workers as they urged their colleagues to continue providing federal money for a transit system that others will never use unless they come to Washington for a sight-seeing trip.

The proposed fiscal 2018 budget anticipates $460 million in federal money.

An efficient Metro system is essential to national security, to make sure it can move people out of Washington in case of an emergency, Raskin said.

Delaney said he also stresses Metro's role in keeping the federal government functioning when he discusses Metro's funding with other representatives. If Metro fails, the Pentagon and other parts of the government suffer.

If Republicans in Congress exercise their oversight over Washington, they have to take responsibility for funding Metro, too, Delaney said.

In recent years, Republicans in Congress have used their oversight function to challenge District laws on abortion, gun control, medical marijuana and same-sex marriage.

"To act [as if] the system doesn't need money, you're just not looking at the facts," Delaney said.

Metro is funded by Maryland, the District of Columbia, and several counties and municipalities in northern Virginia, as well as the federal government. Maryland paid more than $447 million to fund its share of the transit system in fiscal 2017, $448 million in fiscal 2016, $441 million in fiscal 2015, and $404 million in fiscal 2014.

But the increasing millions of funding for Metro haven't kept the system from falling into disrepair, requiring shutdowns and repair work that frustrates customers and officials.

The maintenance problems have led to several serious failures.

In July, a Silver Line train derailed in East Falls Church, injuring three passengers. The National Transportation Safety Board found that the distance between rails at the point where the train derailed was nearly 2 inches more than what's acceptable by WMATA's standards.

In January 2015, an Alexandria, Virginia, woman died when a train stopped in a smoky tunnel near the L'Enfant Plaza station in the District. Officials determined that the smoke had been caused by "arcing," in which electrical current can leak along the track and cause debris on the tracks to catch fire.

And in June 2009, nine people were killed in a crash near the Red Line's Fort Totten station that was attributed to faulty track circuits.

The incidents were part of the motivation for Metro's SafeTrack program, which temporarily shuts down parts of the system for repairs.

Work is scheduled for June on the Red Line between Shady Grove and Twinbrook, although no specific dates have been announced. The work will cause single tracking between the two stations.

Metro's problems caused a group of federal lawmakers to ask the Government Accountability Office to do a report on Metro's management and funding model. The group includes Maryland Senators Ben Cardin (D) and Chris Van Hollen (D) and Congressmen Delaney, Raskin, Steny Hoyer (D), Anthony Brown (D), and John Sarbanes (D), as well as officials from Virginia and Washington, D.C.

In February, the congressional delegations for Maryland and Virginia introduced a resolution to create the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission to oversee WMATA's safety performance.

Metro needs to get its act together to keep its long-term federal support, Van Hollen said.

He believes Wiedefeld has done a good job under difficult circumstances, but significant safety problems must be addressed.

SafeTrack has clearly affected ridership numbers, but the work needed to be done, Van Hollen said.

In February, Delaney introduced legislation to provide an extra $150 million in funding for the Metro system, split between the federal government and Maryland, Virginia and the District.

In return, WMATA would have to upgrade its governance and management policies. It also would ensure certain collective bargaining within 18 months or Congress would withdraw its consent from the compact that binds the four funding jurisdictions together.

Among other things, the bill would require that Metro's Board of Directors -- currently four members apiece from each jurisdiction -- be made up of certified experts in either transit, safety, management or finance.

That's a measure Montgomery County Council President Roger Berliner (D) would support.

WMATA needs to change how it's governed to make sure the board consists of experts on transit rather than elected officials, Berliner said. He said many board members, especially from northern Virginia, tend to be politicians, he said.

One reason Metro got into a hole is because of the politicians on the board, Berliner said. Over the years, he said, the politicians have shied away from short-term pain in exchange for long-term gain for the system. Berliner chairs the Montgomery County Council's Transportation, Infrastructure, Energy, and Environment Committee.

Berliner worries that Metro may be approaching a "death spiral" in which passengers are so turned off, Metro can't win them back.

He hopes people will stick with the system, arguing that it's fundamental to the region's quality of life.

"Failure is not an option," Berliner said.

Follow Ryan Marshall on Twitter: @RMarshallFNP.