by Ethan Knecht
The District’s transportation system has faced a myriad of crises over the past decade. With delayed trains, broken infrastructure, and severe accidents like train crashes and fires, what was once America’s premier transit system has fallen into disarray. For the Georgetown students, local commuters, and tourists who use the Metro’s rail and bus services, fixing the system is a policy problem with serious impact on many people’s daily lives.
Ripe for Bipartisan Gridlock… or Compromise
The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) runs, maintains, and expands Metrorail and buses. But unlike any other major transportation network in the country, it is managed by four parties: DC, Maryland, Virginia, and the federal government.
To make matters more complex, each of the actors are politically split. Virginia has a Democratic governor and a Republican statehouse, while Maryland has a Republican governor and a Democratic statehouse. DC is dominated by Democrats, while the federal government is universally controlled by the Republican Party. For each of the four WMATA actors to come to agreement, they must overcome diverse and complex political backgrounds.
Money Makes the Trains Run on Time
While many problems plague WMATA, likely none are as pressing as its funding issues. Maintaining the system and ensuring its safety, keeping the system affordable for lower-income residents, expanding Metrorail and the Metro bus network to augment its usefulness, and providing new amenities like free Wi-Fi in Metro stations all require regular and large subsidies from state and local governments.
Like most public transportations in the US, about half of WMATA’s funding comes from regular state and local subsidies. However, unlike most public transportation systems, Metro’s subsidies are not provided through a regular and reliable source, such as a dedicated sales tax. This forces Metro to be reliant on political headwinds from the four separate WMATA members, making it harder for Metro to issue bonds and to calculate expenditures for the future.
On top of lacking a dedicated revenue source, Metro will require another $500 million per year just to cover new maintenance and ensure integrity of the Metro system in the 2018 fiscal year according to Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld. Both problems require immediate action from Maryland, Virginia, DC, and the federal government.
Potential for Bipartisan Compromise
At a meeting this September between the governors of Maryland and Virginia and the Mayor of DC, an agreement to shore up Metro’s finances seemed impossible. Initially, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) rejected any increase to Metro’s funding, since he has pledged to maintain conservative fiscal responsibility and not raise taxes. Furthermore, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) has aligned with Gov. Hogan against an increased sales tax to pay for Metro and its funding shortcomings.
However, days later, Gov. Hogan sent a letter to Gov. McAuliffe and DC Mayor Bowser (D) proposing an additional $125 million annual contribution to Metro from Maryland for four years if Virginia, DC, and the federal government match Gov. Hogan’s proposed contribution.
While not directly addressing WMATA’s long-term funding problems, Gov. Hogan said that General Manager Wiedefeld’s request for $500 million to “continue safety and reliability improvements” should be addressed, even if a larger compromise cannot be found in the near-term. By providing four years of additional funding to be allocated by Maryland through discretionary transportation funds, Gov. Hogan argued that a broader consensus could be reached through all relevant parties.
A final agreement has yet to be reached, however Gov. McAuliffe and Mayor Bowser responded positively to Gov. Hogan’s proposal.
Less Uber, More Metro?
For the Georgetown students with no option but to use Uber or Lyft, the potential compromise between local Republicans and Democrats likely will not result in improved transportation options by the time they graduate. The proposed Georgetown Metro station would require additional hundreds of millions of dollars in the future, as would a gondola between Georgetown and the Rosslyn Metro station. But providing a safe and reliable transportation service with proper maintenance will make traveling in DC for commuters and Georgetown students faster and safer.
Ethan Knecht is a sophomore in the SFS studying international politics, who writes about non-financial domestic issues, such as transportation, education, and healthcare.