With Democratic gains in Virginia election, Metro and regional officials see easier path to dedicated funding

Virginia Gov.-elect Ralph Northam’s victory, along with significant Democratic gains in the state legislature, could help overcome the regional political rifts that have stymied efforts to find a long-term source of dedicated funding for Metro, agency and elected officials said this week.

Amid a political stalemate that pitted the District against its tax-averse neighbors, an unexpectedly large Democratic gain of at least 15 seats in the Virginia House of Delegates could shift the balance of power in the GOP-controlled chamber, all but erasing one of the steepest roadblocks to dedicated funding.

Metro board member Christian Dorsey described Tuesday’s election results as “a game changer” in the fight for long-term funding. Dorsey, a Democrat who also is a member of the Arlington County Board, said the results mean dedicated funding has gone from having “no shot to having a possibility” in the state.

“It doesn’t guarantee anything, but just to be able to have a realistic opportunity to make the case and hopefully not have institutional resistance to it — that’s more than anybody could have expected 48 hours ago,” Dorsey said Wednesday. “You’re looking at a landscape that is much more favorable than it was a few days ago.”

Northam has said he supports dedicated funding for the transit agency, though he has not advocated a specific funding mechanism. His campaign did not immediately respond to a request to comment.

In a related development, some top area officials signaled it will probably be necessary for the region to adopt stopgap, “bridge funding” for Metro for the fiscal year that begins July 1. That’s because it won’t be politically possible to agree on dedicated funding by then — even with the political shift in the Virginia legislature.

A statement at Wednesday’s meeting of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) marked a setback for the group’s hope that dedicated funding could be approved in the Virginia and Maryland legislative sessions that begin in January.

The COG statement quickly drew criticism from a coalition of business and nonprofit groups, who urged action on the issue in early 2018.

In Virginia, Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) has said he will propose a dedicated funding source for Metro when he presents his final budget as governor in December — though he did not explicitly endorse a new tax or say how much additional money he wants to raise. The gesture was viewed then as largely symbolic because of the uncertainty of the election.

Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld says he needs $15.5 billion over 10 years to keep the system safe and reliable. He also says that should include an additional $500 million a year in dedicated funding, on top of what regional governments have been providing, for equipment and maintenance.

A uniform regional sales tax, the mechanism preferred by the District and endorsed by a COG technical panel, was regarded a nonstarter in the GOP-controlled Virginia General Assembly as well as among many elected officials of both parties in Northern Virginia.

Tuesday’s results may change that, supporters say, because it will be easier to win approval of some other tax or dedicated funding.

“If [Northam’s] got an almost Democratic-controlled house, that gives him a leg up that [McAuliffe] didn’t have,” Metro board chairman Jack Evans said. “I think that’s a real positive sign, and I’m real happy.”

Republicans retain narrow control of the Virginia Senate, with 21 seats to the Democrats’ 19.

Evans (D), who also is a D.C. Council member, co-introduced council legislation this week for a 0.75 percent sales tax dedicated to Metro. The measure is contingent upon Virginia and Maryland doing the same.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R), who has said he won’t raise taxes for Metro, instead proposed providing the agency with $2 billion over four years, split evenly among the District, Maryland, Virginia and the federal government. But the plan has been criticized because it is a short-term solution.

Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova (D) also was optimistic in light of the state election results.

“While they may not yet have seniority, they are supportive of the Democrat positions for more funding, more needed funding for Metro,” Bulova said. “This is a really positive sign and a very positive outcome for Metro — for Metro funding.”

Wiedefeld praised Northam’s stance on dedicated funding in a brief statement this week.

“We are grateful for the Governor Elect’s strong support of Metro’s funding needs and look forward to working with him,” Wiedefeld said.

But Northern Virginia Republicans cautioned that the loss of agency supporters from their side of the aisle could mean that Metro issues won’t have the ear of leadership. GOP losses mean the Republican delegation in Richmond has even less skin in the game when it comes to Metro, Loudoun County Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles) said.

“It was a tremendous loss, both in terms of past achievements and also in terms of prospects for the future,” Letourneau said. “They were the individuals who I think were most likely to be able to forge compromise and work with Republican leadership in the House and the Senate to find Metro solutions. Without them being there, it’s going to be more challenging.”

The Republican voices on Metro who lost Tuesday include Del. James M. LeMunyon (Fairfax), who was upset by Karrie Delaney (D), and Del. J. Randall Minchew (Loudoun), who fell to Wendy Gooditis (D). Another influential Republican from the area, Del. David B. Albo (Fairfax), announced before the election that he was retiring. Democrat Kathy Tran defeated Republican Lolita Mancheno-Smoak in the race for Albo’s seat.

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) was enthusiastic about the potential ramifications of Northam’s win, but said the impact remains to be seen.

“I’m hopeful that the election means that there are people who are much friendlier to the region, and much more receptive to the idea of a dedicated tax,” Mendelson said.

But Mendelson acknowledged that the loss of moderate, Metro-friendly Republicans in Northern Virginia could make it more difficult to gain traction in the legislature — or maybe not.

“If they’re not there, that strategy becomes more difficult. But on the other hand, if the Assembly has flipped, then it’s not an issue. But then there can be Democrats who are reluctant about raising taxes,” Mendelson said. “All that can be said with certainty is that it looks like it will be easier to discuss the dedicated regional tax in Richmond.”

There are a handful of races that are still too close to call.

“Obviously if the Democrats control the House, that’s probably a much different dynamic,” Letourneau said. “They’ll have presumably the ear of their leadership and be able to work on something.”

He said any new funding will almost certainly have to be paired with governance changes, which have been endorsed by both Republicans and Democrats in Richmond. Former U.S. transportation secretary Ray LaHood is expected to recommend a sweeping overhaul of the agency’s governance, including a three-year, five-member “reform board,” in an upcoming study ordered by McAuliffe.

Asked about the urgency of securing dedicated funding by fellow panel members, Dorsey laid out the stakes at the COG meeting Wednesday. “If, at the end of the day, Mr. Wiedefeld doesn’t get what [Metro has] validated are the needs, we have to take very seriously the fact that he may not be there long-term.”

COG’s Metro Strategy Group issued the statement warning that dedicated funding probably won’t be in agreed upon in time for the coming fiscal year. The group, led by Bulova, includes senior officials from the jurisdictions that fund Metro.

The group said its “ultimate goal” remains “a permanent, long-term dedicated funding solution enacted as expeditiously as possible.”

However, should that not happen right away, it said, “It is critical that the region maintains its momentum and commits to a significant down payment — ‘bridge funding’ to mix metaphors a bit — to assure Metro’s capital needs are fully covered in FY 2019.”

The group acknowledged it faces major disagreements over what kind of tax or other mechanism should be adopted to provide dedicated funding.

“We knew this would be a complicated task,” said the statement, delivered by COG Vice Chairman Derrick L. Davis (D), who also chairs the Prince George’s County Council.

The prospect of a one-year delay in approving dedicated funding was criticized by the coalition of business groups and nonprofits that support Metro.

“A one-year funding patch for Metro repairs is shortsighted and does not prioritize the system or a long-term solution,” the coalition said. “Taking action in the legislative sessions starting in January 2018 is critical. We cannot delay until 2019 when the needs today are so urgent.”

The statement was signed by business groups including the Federal City Council, Greater Washington Board of Trade, 2030 Group and Greater Washington Partnership, as well as nonprofits including the Coalition for Smarter Growth and Greater Greater Washington.

“A temporary stopgap measure is simply not sufficient to support the types of changes necessary to bring Metro — and the regional economy as a whole — into the future effectively,” the coalition said. “Voters are expecting our elected leaders to stand up and lead.”

Martine Powers contributed to this report.

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