Why Metro deserves its federal boost
By Eleanor Holmes Norton
During the years we struggled in Congress to get $1.5 billion to fund capital costs for Metro, I believed that one reason for the funding towered above the rest. If Metro shuts down, so will the federal government. Last weekend’s two-foot snowfall offers unwanted, but verifiable, evidence that Metro and the federal government are joined at the hip.
Still, the first $150 million of Metro’s 10-year authorization was in doubt until the Senate passed the final appropriations bill and President Obama signed it Dec. 16. Five days later, the blizzard of 2009 caused the federal government to shut tight for the first time since 2003.
Snow began to fall on Friday night, Dec. 18. By Saturday afternoon, 39 of the 86 aboveground train stations had to stop service. The electrified third rail that powers trains was covered with snow and ice. Deep snow on the streets caused Metro to stop bus and Metro Access service as well. Left with only below-ground, partial service on trains and without Metrobus service, the federal government bowed to reality and closed on Monday.
Since Metro’s beginnings in 1969, when the federal government helped finance its construction, Congress has recognized its dependence on public transportation for federal employees and tourists. Federal employees, who constitute almost half the rush-hour ridership, have long dominated the system. So it was exasperating to have to push and shove for years to get approval of the new Metro funding.
Annual federal appropriations for transit-subsidy benefits to the tune of $230 monthly per employee have given federal workers an incentive to use the system since 1998, cutting the region’s notorious traffic congestion and dangerous air pollution at the same time. Metrorail ridership has risen by 15 million annual passenger trips, or 7 percent, in just the past three years. At the same time federal employees have played a major role in wearing down the 40-year-old system as riders crammed the trains and made other costly demands on a system that was already short of cars and rapidly deteriorating.
A classic co-dependency is now plain to the naked eye. The federal government needs Metro, but Metro also needs the federal government. Ridership, after ballooning, recently has fallen because of the deep recession, making federal workers, who are nearly immune from layoffs, all the more valuable as riders. The Metro board is scurrying to fill a $40 million gap in its operations budget for this fiscal year, which began only two months ago.
The $1.5 billion federal authorization, of course, must be used exclusively for capital costs. Nevertheless, this appropriation is a lifeline for the District, Maryland and Virginia, which combined must also dedicate an amount equal to the $150 million annual federal subsidy. The regional contributions provide the first dedicated funding to Metro, which has been the only system in the country without a steady source of revenue. This money, in turn, will be dedicated to replenishing Metro’s aging infrastructure. Considering indications that Metro’s 1970s-vintage railcars, on which nine people died in a June 22 crash, and its automatic train control system may be implicated in the string of accidents that have plagued the system for a decade, this new infrastructure funding is a welcome development. The June train crash prompted another response from Congress as well: Lawmakers representing the Washington area introduced a bill for federal safety regulation of transit systems nationwide.
Next year, when we return for a new $150 million federal installment in capital spending funds, I hope that appropriators will remember that the federal government would have had to cancel the presidential inauguration if Metro had not clocked 1.5 million trips in January. I hope that there will be no doubt that the federal government needs Metro, a regional system, as much as it needs its Transportation Department and all other federal agencies. Most of all, there should be no forgetting, by all who will be paying for a revitalized Metro, that the blizzard of 2009 brought on the perfect storm that shut down Metro, and with it, the federal and regional governments.
The writer, the District’s delegate to Congress, is a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and chairs one of its subcommittees.
| December 24, 2009; 2:34 PM ET
Categories: D.C., HotTopic, Maryland, Metro, Virginia
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