Turning Up the Heat on WMATA

AJ Mast via AP Images

A Metro train pulls into a station in Washington, D.C.

Fires in Washington’s Metrorail system are so frequent and predictable (invariably involving the Red Line, the system’s oldest and most travelled route) that there are t-shirts, a website, and at least one active Twitter account devoted to exclusively to Metro fires. But comic relief is fleeting for the region’s commuters who are well aware of the Washington Metro Area Transit Authority’s (WMATA) fatal mishaps.

Thursday morning’s commute, which saw smoke from an overheated rail fastener billowing through tunnels, provided more evidence, as if any were needed, that Metro is a mess. The fire-prone Red Line managed to mark Take Your Child To Work Day in a way that the parents and kids crammed into railcars or stranded on platforms or forced to seek alternate routes will never forget. In recent years, ridership has declined significantly and every near miss sends more people above ground for safer and more reliable alternatives. The next decrease in ridership may come this summer, courtesy of a fare hike combined with a reduced service plan, a gamble for a system that serves up commuting debacles on a regular basis.

The problems of deferred maintenance that plague big-city transit systems are not new. Indeed, the chaos that follows incidents involving broken rail ties, defective switches, decaying wiring, and the like have accelerated in recent years. In New York City, derailments caused by aging infrastructure have sparked a war of words between the Metropolitan Transportation Authority New Jersey Transit, and Amtrak over those recent  accidents at Penn Station, the Northeast’s most important rail hub for both commuter and long-distance passenger travel. Amtrak plans to shut down a number of tracks to expedite repairs but still plans to put off much needed technological upgrades due to a lack of funding.

To arrest WMATA’s descent into deferred maintenance hell, a new report by a Washington Council of Governments technical panel proposes that localities levy a one percent sales tax in the transit system’s service area. A sales tax would be an easy to-implement option that would be shared by residents and tourists alike. The panel estimates that a regional sales tax would bring in $650 million annually. With a general hostility to new taxes and widespread disgust with how far a subway system that is only 41 years old has fallen in from its glory days, a tax increase of even a penny per dollar will require sophisticated salesmanship.

There’s no question that WMATA needs the bucks. The District of Columbia, Virginia, and Maryland must come up with $15. 6 billion over the next decade to restore the system to a state of  good repair, and WMATA anticipates averaging a $610 million annual funding gap to get there. Finding the funding is a conundrum that increased fare revenues and new cutbacks across the system by themselves will not solve, according to the report. Mounting capital and maintenance costs alone may outstrip available local funding by 2019.

Unlike the other legacy transit systems in Boston, Chicago, and New York, WMATA lacks a dedicated revenue stream, such as a statewide or local sales tax. The federal government provides about 30 percent of the system’s budget, amounting to roughly $150 million, on top of which each of the local jurisdictions served by WMATA provides an annual, if unreliable, subsidy ranging from $312 million from the District of Columbia hundreds of millions from the two Maryland counties and three Virginia counties and two cities that make up the Metro network.

Political dithering between the District, Maryland, and Virginia, as well as epic mismanagement have long plagued the agency. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and city council members have already signaled their willingness to back a regional sales tax. A statewide sales tax increase in Maryland or Virginia, similar to the one that funds the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) in Greater Boston, however, is a nonstarter. Maryland Governor Larry Hogan is game to allow two D.C.-adjacent Maryland counties to pursue a sales tax option if local officials can generate public support for such a move.

Virginia’s dynamics are more complex, as Republicans in the General Assembly may not be keen on granting taxation authority to the five Virginia counties in the WMATA network. (Other possible revenue generators examined by the panel, including a general property tax increase; a property tax increase based on proximity to Metro; and a 16.3 percent gas tax hike, would all likely meet resistance.)

When it comes to Metro, leaders in the DMV, as the three jurisdictions are known locally, have been just dysfunctional as their Capitol Hill counterparts. But proposals from two members of Congress that would force governance changes and labor concessions on WMATA have probably gotten local officials’ attention. Maryland Democrat John Delaney wants to provide WMATA with $750 million in federal funding over a decade in exchange for changes in the system’s governance for a smaller board whose members have deeper professional expertise in transportation. He’s also called for labor modifications. (His plan has angered WMATA union leaders.) A bill offered by Virginia Republican Barbara Comstock also calls for governance and labor concessions, minus the sweetener of federal dollars.

What about the trillion in Trump-promised infrastructure dollars? Funding prospects for WMATA or any other US transit agency, alas, grow dimmer every day, overshadowed as they are by the crisis du jour at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Despite the attention that Trump showered on infrastructure during the campaign, and his selection of Elaine Chao, a former Department of Transportation assistant secretary, as the DOT’s new chief, no plan has emerged. Even the trial balloon of using repatriation to fund infrastructure appears to have fizzled out: Although the Trump tax plan contains a one-time repatriation proposal, it is not specifically tied to infrastructure investments.

The good news for the nation’s capital region is that even tax-adverse Americans tend to like transit ballot measures. They have a high likelihood of passage as long as the aims and the scope of the benefits, such as more reliable service, reduced traffic congestion, and new services, are clearly spelled out. Last year, voters approved hundreds of revenue plans. Earlier this month, St. Louis passed a half-cent sales tax both to generate immediate funding and help secure the bonding needed to trigger federal matching funds. In Tennessee, state lawmakers have agreed to raise gas and diesel taxes and to allow localities to hold referendums on sales tax increases or other levies to fund transit projects.

Sales taxes do have drawbacks, especially if they fail to live up to projections. In Massachusetts, statewide sales tax revenues dedicated to the MBTA in 2000 failed to match projections, a contributing factor in the authority’s long-running fiscal crisis. Conservative anti-tax forces, particularly Koch b rothers-funded efforts, have deployed resources to defeat local tax questions in cities like Indianapolis. (They also tried without success to thwart a new tax in Loudoun County, Virginia to pay for WMATA’s Silver Line, which will eventually extend service to Dulles International Airport.)

The District, Maryland, and Virginia have run out of alternatives to inaction, saddled as they are with an accident-plagued subway system, federal oversight, and cash-strapped localities that may be forced cut to other priorities to fund WMATA. Even Representative Mark Meadows, a North Carolina Republican and leader of the far-right Freedom Caucus, has conceded that something has to be done to get WMATA running smoothly. In an eye-popping revelation, Meadows told a WMATA oversight hearing in March, “I get more complaints about WMATA here in the District than anything else.”

Local foot-dragging on governance, safety, and deferred maintenance has brought a once stellar transit system to the brink of complete collapse. A regional sales tax dedicated to WMATA merits serious consideration as a one tool to address an unwarranted crisis. The price for failing to get the region’s political act together is steep and will only get steeper.

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