In a bid to cover a financial gap that has hampered Metro since its creation, state lawmakers in Virginia and Maryland will consider bills to give the agency a permanent, dependable source of funding worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year.
It will be the first time since the agreement to build the subway more than 50 years ago that lawmakers in Richmond and Annapolis have simultaneously sought to provide dedicated funding for the transit agency.
The District strongly supports the goal, so agreements in the Maryland and Virginia legislative sessions that begin Wednesday would mark a breakthrough. Metro is the only major transit system in the country that does not receive a significant part of its funding from a tax or other dedicated source of revenue, a shortcoming that has been identified as a weakness as far back as 1979.
A key to the new effort is flexibility; each state would come up with its own way to raise the money. Virginia is considering doing it partly through tax increases in Northern Virginia, whereas Maryland is looking at diverting existing transportation funds to Metro. All three jurisdictions say they will provide additional funds only if the other two do so.
Success is hardly assured. In Virginia, both Democrats and Republicans are raising objections to a plan proposed last month by outgoing Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) that would increase taxes on real estate sales, hotel stays and wholesale gasoline.
In Maryland, obstacles could arise in the perennial tug-of-war between Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and the Democratic-controlled General Assembly.
It’s also possible that the combined measures would fall short of the $500 million a year in additional, dedicated funding that Metro says it needs starting in July, to ensure safety and reliability.
Maryland Democrats to propose Metro funding bill, and Hogan’s initial response is positive]
Still, it’s significant that the effort has advanced this far, analysts say. Senior legislators in Virginia and Maryland say the bills will receive serious consideration amid hope that progress on one side of the Potomac will encourage movement on the other.
Political winds are favorable. Democrats, who are traditionally pro-transit, won all three statewide offices in Virginia in the November election and gained 15 seats in the House of Delegates.
In Maryland, the two powerful leaders of the General Assembly — Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) — said last week that they support dedicated funding if certain conditions are met. Hogan has signaled he is open to the idea, although he is deferring judgment until a bill gets close to his desk.
“We have cause for measured optimism,” said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), a longtime Metro supporter. “All three jurisdictions are talking about dedicated funding at the same time, and I hope last November’s election creates a real opportunity for Richmond to show its commitment to Metro’s future.”
In addition, a high-powered coalition of regional business organizations and nonprofit groups was formally launched Monday to back efforts in Richmond and Annapolis to provide Metro with the dedicated funding it needs and reform its governance.
The group, called MetroNow, grew out of a Metro reform effort started in late 2016 by the Federal City Council. MetroNow is being led by the council and five other groups: the Greater Washington Board of Trade, Greater Washington Partnership, 2030 Group, Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce and the Coalition for Smarter Growth.
Their representatives will be active in lobbying in the state capitals for measures to help the transit agency.
“We will be on the ground simultaneously in Richmond, Annapolis and D.C., advocating off the same hymnal,” said Michael Forehand, vice president for government relations at the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce.
The business community has supported dedicated funding for Metro in the past, including in a major report in 2005. Business leaders have redoubled their efforts, however, because the success of Metro is viewed as critical to the region’s economic health — both in attracting investment dollars and workers from the pro-transit millennial generation.
The value of Metro was reinforced recently when online retail giant Amazon said access to transit was a top priority in picking a site for its new second headquarters and accompanying 50,000 new jobs. (Amazon founder Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
“If you look at Amazon and what their criteria are, transit is crucial,” said Maryland Del. Marc A. Korman (D-Montgomery), a sponsor of the Metro funding bill in Annapolis. “It’s particularly important for us in Maryland with Gov. Hogan to have significant business community support.”
The pro-Metro coalition also includes nonprofit transit advocates and environmentalists. The Sierra Club has listed dedicated funding for Metro as a top priority in both the Annapolis and Richmond legislative sessions.
“The most effective collaborations we have had have been when business and nonprofits worked together,” said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. He referred to past efforts to support the light-rail Purple Line in suburban Maryland and redevelopment of the Tysons area in Fairfax County.
In Virginia, McAuliffe’s budget proposal includes $150 million a year in dedicated funding for Metro, of which $65 million a year would come from higher taxes on Northern Virginians for real estate sales, hotel stays and wholesale gasoline. The remaining $85 million would come from committing transportation funds Northern Virginia already receives to Metro.
But Northern Virginia Democrats have asked for revisions to the proposal so that at least some of the money comes from state funds — and their region does not have to bear the full burden.
“There has to be state revenue in there, not just regional revenue,” said Del. Vivian E. Watts (D-Fairfax), a former state transportation secretary who also is the ranking Democrat on the House Finance Committee.
In addition, key legislators expressed doubt that it would be possible to persuade the GOP majorities in the House and Senate to go along with the higher real estate and hotel taxes. Some of the necessary money may have to be found elsewhere, they said.
Republican leaders also have signaled that they would set conditions on any additional money for Metro, such as requiring curbs on overtime pay, pension benefits and other labor costs. They would not be satisfied with McAuliffe’s plan to fix the transit agency’s governance simply by replacing its 16-member board with a five-member reform board.
“All of those are issues,” Watts said of the GOP concerns. “Whether they end up being conditional [for funding] will be what this session is all about.”
Sen. George L. Barker (D-Fairfax), who is helping draft the legislation, expressed confidence that a funding bill would be approved because lawmakers realize Metro is critical to Northern Virginia’s economy, which is vital for the entire state’s prosperity.
“Nobody is going to get everything they want, but . . . there is clear unanimity of opinion that this issue needs to be addressed,” Barker said.
In Maryland, the planned bill backed by Korman and two other legislators would commit $125 million a year to Metro from the state transportation trust fund. Miller and Busch, the state’s two top legislative leaders, said Thursday in separate interviews that they are supportive.
Miller, the Senate president, said he supports additional state funding for Metro “coupled with a plan for improvement, expansion and maintenance, and also management.”
“There are going to have to be some concessions in that regard, but if you can get those concessions we can get a funding source from Maryland and Virginia and D.C., and positive things happen,” Miller said.
Busch, the House speaker, agreed that Maryland should provide dedicated funding if the other two jurisdictions agree to do so.
“If they put up the money, I think it’s an obligation that certainly the state of Maryland has to do that,” he said.
There appeared to be little interest in Annapolis in McAuliffe’s plan for a five-member reform board, which also has support from the MetroNow coalition.
Korman said it’s “appropriate” to provide money only if changes are made, but said the reform board is not necessarily the right vehicle.
“It’s not clear that is gong to be the exact path of reform, but we all want to make sure the money is spent well,” Korman said.
Josh Hicks contributed to this report.
Photo by Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post. Read the original story here.