Metro’s GM: The System Needs $15.5 Billion and A New Business Plan

Metro’s general manager is calling for $500 million each year in dedicated funding for capital projects and other major changes to the business model for the transit system, which has been hemorrhaging riders and has seen incidents ranging from disturbing to catastrophic in the past few years.

The system “is aging under our feet. Major infrastructure like this does wear out, and we have to replace it,” Paul Wiedefeld said on the Kojo Nnamdi Show today. “It is about what are the financial realities that we face and how do we start to attack them.”

In a six-page document released yesterday, Wiedefeld outlined his proposals, knowing full well that they would kick off a major debate. Among them are major labor changes, including less generous pensions for future employees and opening up some projects to competitive bidding from contractors, and a significant increase in annual spending on infrastructure projects.

On the job for about a year and a half, Wiedefeld has won respect for making tough decisions, like shutting the system for the day, and his candor in articulating a vision for the future of the transit system. He’s seen some noteworthy successes, including bringing various regional partners to pull off the yearlong maintenance plan known as SafeTrack and handling the Women’s March on Washington, Metro’s second biggest ridership day after Barack Obama’s first inauguration.

But with operating expenses growing at twice the rate of revenues and infrastructure investments that have been neglected for years, his new plan is significantly more far-reaching and ambitious.

Things like adding wi-fi and painting typically inspire a round of commentary along the lines of “they should be making service reliable first.” The truth of the matter, though, is the cost of those things account for drops in the yawning financial bucket.

Wiedefeld says the system has $25.5 billion in unfunded capital needs. He is pushing for a $15.5 billion plan—$1.5 billion a year for the next decade—that he believes would be more feasible technically and politically, and it calls for a third of those funds to go specifically to infrastructure investments, so they don’t get re-appropriated for operating expenses.

And while Wiedefeld is advocating strongly for a dedicated funding source, he isn’t making recommendations about exactly how that should come about. “We want to stay in our lane. Our lane is to define the needs, justify the needs, and talk about what we would do” with the funds, he said on the Kojo Show.

At the top of the list of challenges is bringing the region’s governments together to agree on a plan. For some context, Virginia and Maryland didn’t get their act together to create the framework for a new Metrorail Safety Commission until after the federal government followed through on its threat to withhold millions of dollars from the transit system.

Wiedefeld acknowledged that extremely difficult decisions lie ahead, but said that the ongoing string of incidents and attention on the issues are working in their favor. “I think that has woken up everyone,” he said. “We have to start to address these issues—we cannot continue this path.”

Right up there in terms of difficulty will be convincing the union and labor groups to go along; they have already emitted a howl of protest that seems unlikely to diminish.

The proposal “is bad for riders, bad for workers and bad for the region. Instead of offering real proposals to improve the system and win riders back, Wiedefeld has, once again, pitted riders against workers in an attempt to balance the agency’s budget on the back of WMATA’s hardworking employees,” reads a statement issued by ATU Local 689 today. “His solution is to outsource services more and more of the system, which will make the system less safe, less reliable, more costly and demoralize the workforce in a race to the bottom.”

One self-identified employee called in to the Kojo Show to ask if Wiedefeld was trying to impoverish the workforce.

The general manager countered that one of the only other options would be service cuts, which would also mean job cuts.

Praise has come from other corners, including the Washington Post’s editorial board and some local politicians.

“GM Wiedefeld’s logical proposal for a long-term WMATA funding plan is worthy of careful consideration,” tweeted Virginia Senator Tim Kaine. Stewart Schwartz, the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, had a similar take: “The general manager’s plan is the best we’ve seen to date. His statement is bluntly honest about the situation and we generally endorse his proposals—although we will need more information about some of them.”

Now that the plan is out in the open, the debate can begin in earnest. The open question is: will ever turn into action?

“If we don’t do something, we know the slide we’re on,” Wiedefeld said. “It will get steeper and deeper.”

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