Region Reacts To LaHood Report On Metro

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Washington, November 13, 2017 | comments
Martin DiCaro

Former U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood defended his long-awaited report on fixing Metro against early criticism on Monday, as critics argued it fell short in recommending workable solutions to the transit agency’s most pressing problems.

A day after his 19-page report was leaked to the Washington Post, LaHood explained to WAMU he did not recommend a specific tax increase to raise an additional $500 million per year in dedicated funding because there is no regional consensus right now. His explanation comes seven months after Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe hired him to dive into Metro’s long-term capital needs and labor costs. Past studies have concluded a regional 1 percent sales tax would raise sufficient funding to rebuild the rail and bus systems.

“The support is not there for it,” said LaHood, referring to the sales tax idea. Only the District backs raising a regional sales tax to pay for Metro. Maryland and Virginia leaders oppose it.

“That would have been something everybody knows is not going to happen,” he said. “I wanted to recommend something that is doable.”

A cover letter to LaHood’s report said:
… Each of WMATA’s funding partners… can generate its share in a way that makes sense for them. The methods can be different so long as the key criteria are met: the total is sufficient, the funds are dedicated, and they arrive soon.

Even though she said she had not read the entire report as of Monday morning, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser repeated her preference for a regional sales tax.

“The chief thing that we were hoping it would lead to was a pathway to dedicated funding for Virginia, and I am still hopeful that Terry McAuliffe will introduce, as he said he would in his budget, a mechanism to do that,” Bowser said.

She added that a regional tax “is still the best way” to provide Metro long-term funding.

LaHood, the only Republican in President Obama’s first-term cabinet, emphasized the importance of Congress increasing the federal contribution to Metro’s capital budget. It is currently $150 million per year in a 10-year spending bill that expires in two years. Under the PRIIA legislation, D.C., Virginia, and Maryland each provide $50 million to match the federal total.

“The inspiration has to come from the [regional congressional] delegation,” LaHood said. “Frankly, when people look at PRIIA, that is how it came about. The delegation went to Congress and said, we have to provide this money, i.e. 10 years of funding.”

Virginia Congressman Gerry Connolly, a Democrat, said the fate of the PRIIA renewal could be decided by the mid-term elections.

“We’re going to fight tooth and nail, whoever is in charge of Congress, to get this renewed,” Connolly said. “It is critical to the future of Metro. And I don’t think even my Republican colleagues of the more conservative bent want the responsibility of a broken-down Metro on their hands.”

But Connolly was less impressed with other aspects of LaHood’s report, including its most controversial proposal to oust the current, 16-member Metro board and replace it with a five-person, temporary reform board to oversee Metro for the next three years.

“The idea that five technocrats somehow are going to usher in a new age of Pericles and provide the wisdom apparently we don’t have now, is a false promise and raises expectations that will be quickly dashed,” said Connolly. He disagrees with LaHood’s idea to bar elected officials from sitting on a new board.

LaHood pushed back against criticism that his report failed to provide a clear legal path to overhauling the board without revising the Metro Compact, a process that would involve Congress and delay change for years.

“We presented legal standing for that to happen,” said LaHood. “The way it would work is the two governors, the mayor of Washington, D.C., and the Secretary of Transportation would ask who they’ve appointed to step aside.”

D.C., Maryland, Virginia, and the federal government each appoint four members to the WMATA board, but each follows a different process.

In Maryland, for instance, the governor appoints his state’s two voting board members and the two alternates are chosen by Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties. In Virginia, on the other hand, the governor picks just one board member; the other three are chosen by a local transportation commission in Northern Virginia.

“We provide the legal framework for this to happen, and it can happen,” LaHood said.

D.C. Council member Jack Evans, the current board chairman, disagreed. Although he has called for a smaller board in general, Evans said the handshake agreements called for in LaHood’s report would leave the new board open to endless legal challenges.

“If you try to and set up a new board by the agreement of the principles, it’ll immediately be challenged by the unions, the ACLU, and others. And they will probably prevail,” said Evans, who said the report otherwise validates all his own positions.

“We need dedicated funding. The board is too big,” Evans said. “The federal government needs to pay more, and the whole operation of Metro needs to be studied to see if we can be even more efficient. The downside of the report is it doesn’t advance the argument on how to solve the problems.”

Virginia Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne, who said he first read the report in the Washington Post, said the “reform board” idea is doable.

“I disagree vehemently with Jack Evans, and he is part of the problem, quite frankly,” Layne said. “And if we are going to have governance, some of the statements he has made are going to be a detriment to that.”

Evans has repeatedly feuded with officials in Maryland and Virginia over several Metro-related issues. The release of LaHood’s report appeared to do little to bring all sides together.

Layne said new funding from Virginia could hinge on whether state legislators are satisfied with a WMATA board overhaul.

“The whole key to us putting in more money is for it to be bondable,” said Layne, who said the Metro board as currently composed would not receive a good bond rating to borrow against dedicated funding.

Other groups took issue with some of LaHood’s recommendations, including one to downsize Metrobus routes to meet reduced demand while increasing the bus fare by ten cents to $2.10.

“Fares just got raised by twenty-five cents and that’s hurting people,” said Siggy Meilus, the executive director of Americans For Transit, a rider advocacy group backed by the transit union.

She and other labor and community groups sat down with LaHood on Nov. 7 to discuss his coming report, but Meilus came away unimpressed.

“It felt like a dog-and-pony show,” she said. “It felt like a feel-good meeting for LaHood and whoever is working on the study that they checked the box of getting community input.”

LaHood is also calling on Metro to convince its unionized workers to significantly increase their pension contributions from three percent to seven percent.

Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 released a statement that did not criticize the pension proposal, but praised LaHood’s other findings about labor costs.

“LaHood’s report acknowledges two fundamental realities: Metro is at a breaking point and workers are not to blame for the financial problems the authority faces,” said the statement by ATU president Jackie Jeter.

“The report looked at transit authorities across the country and found that hourly compensation when compared to the region’s cost of living was average for WMATA employees. It also found that WMATA’s “all-in” labor costs per hour have been average when compared to peer transit agencies and that retirement benefits were actually less generous than the industry standard they deserve.”

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