$150 Million a Year More for WMATA? Good Luck with That!

Source: Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transit. (Click for larger image.)

Downstate Virginia legislators are inclined to block increased capital funding for Washington’s dysfunctional heavy-rail commuter system unless the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) undertakes serious structural reforms.

WMATA officials say they need about $15.5 billion for capital spending over the next 10 years to work through a massive backlog of deferred maintenance. Virginia’s state-government share would be about $150 million a year over and above the $200 million it allocates annually to operations and capital spending.

“I want value. I’m willing to deliver,” said state Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, in a meeting of the Senate Finance Committee yesterday, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “But I want to see problems solved. And all too often when we talk about solving problems, the easy way to solve it is just throw more money at it. It’s a workplace problem; it’s an efficiency problem.”

Convincing constituents that giving Metro more money is a hard sell when in his district the Robert O. Norris Bridge “is literally falling into the river,” said Sen. Ryan T. McDougle, R-Hanover. “How is it that I can go to my people and say, ‘We’re going to spend money on an organization where we have no control from the state, we have no say so in the administration based on the board is put together? … There’s no way I can justify a vote to spend that kind of money for an entity that we have this little control over and is refusing to change how that structure is done.”

(For the record, the Robert O. Norris Bridge is not “literally” falling into the Rappahannock River. Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne told the committee that the state does not even consider it to be structurally deficient.)

Ray LaHood, the former U.S. Transportation Secretary chosen by Governor Terry McAuliffe to review WMATA’s performance and governance, told the Finance Committee that he is trying to develop consensus around four areas: WMATA’s governance structure, its funding structure, its legacy labor costs, and maintenance.

The current management team has cut 1,000 of 1,300 WMATA workers, mostly nonunion employees and tightened ethics and nepotism policies. Also, said LaHood, “We’re going to try to fix the governance part so you feel you do have a voice. We can figure out how to fix your bridge and have a good transportation — Metro system — in Washington, D.C., that you can be proud of.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Obenshain and McDougle are absolutely right. Virginia should not fork over one red cent until WMATA can prove it won’t become a fiscal black hole. It appears that the new management team has taken some important steps with the nonunion workforce, but the real challenge will be extracting major concessions from the union. If it chooses to strike, the union can virtually shut down Washington, D.C. The only way — the only way — for Virginia legislators to stiffen management’s spine in a confrontation is to withhold that $150 million a year.

Even if WMATA delivers needed reforms, pumping another $150 million a year into the authority would aggravate an already lopsided distribution of rail and transit revenues.

As can be seen in the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transit’s fiscal 2017 budget atop this post, DRPT hands out a total of $437 million a year in grants to cover operational expenses and capital spending for rail, buses and handicapped transportation around the state. Of that amount, $303 million already goes to Northern Virginia. Adding another $150 million a year to that sum would favor Northern Virginia even more lopsidedly — boosting its share from 69% of the DRPT budget to 77%.

Where would the money come from? Shifting money from inside the DRPT budget would eviscerate non-WMATA programs, most of them downstate. Most likely the money would have to come from road & highway spending. Virginia Department of Transportation funds allocated to construction spending in fiscal 2017 amount to about $802 million. Taking the WMATA money from roads & highways would reduce construction spending by 19%. Not just one year, but for 10 years.

Even Northern Virginia lawmakers might balk at that.

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23 responses to “$150 Million a Year More for WMATA? Good Luck with That!

  1. The answer has always been simple – regional government. NoVa spends its tax base on what it wants and downstate Virginia spends the taxes it raises on what they want. Nobody funds anybody else’s priorities because no money is transferred from one region to another. The state can collect 1% income tax to fund things like the state police.

  2. Northern Virginia’s close in Metro likely contributes a whole lot more to Metro than it takes out of the system in the way of maintenance, and I suspect that close in Virginia paid a great deal of money extra up front long ago to create those benefits that now have been spinning off to everyone’s great advantage for more than 30 years. I recall that much of cost of putting Metro up center of Arlington new downtown (in lieu of 1-66 right of way) was picked up by the locals. And locals took full advantage of decision, which many other locales did not to everyone’s detriment. Arlington earned this advantage.

  3. Sales tax increase is the best option for DC and Gas tax increases for VA and MD makes the most sense. Sales tax increases in “suburban” areas will not change driving habits.

    Northern Virginia already has a dedicated funding source (2.1% gas tax = ~4.5 cents) to fund WMATA. An increase to $0.15 cents per gallon could net ~$90 Million per year. This could be to indexed for inflation and fuel efficiency improvements.

    This will also:
    1. Make public transportation more cost effective (Fair Box Recovery)
    2. Reduce congestion and sprawl (Land Use)
    3. Incentive the purchase of fuel efficient vehicles (Environment)

    Virginia could also reallocate 0.2 out of the 0.7% NVTA sales tax to be dedicated to the WMATA capital program (8 car trains/Rosslyn Tunnel/other capacity initiatives/new station entrances). which raises $60 Million per year. NVTA already has funded multiple high $ WMATA projects (Two new metro stations and tractor power upgrades)

    In this situation, all taxes are raised in the NOVA region and should not get push back from other regions in Virginia.

  4. I am thinking NoVA is hosed on higher taxes baked into our pie, and VA tax structure is unfair to NoVA of course.

    Give Virginia total control of Metro with our right to work policy and cut the union non-sense.

  5. re: “no more money until you fix it” and ” we can’t fix it without more money”

    hmm….

    but WAIT -… all this time I’ve been hearing from TMT and DJR that NoVa subsidizes ROVA and now we hear this…

    …. what the…. ????

    NOVA just got a supplemental regional transportation tax and did Hampton.

    Hampton is using theirs to build toll tunnels… what is NoVa doing with it’s regional taxes and tolls?

    the one thing we still do not seem to know is how much should METRO need financially? Did it get the funding it needed all along or was it starved into the condition it is now? Does it’s operating an capital numbers look like other transit systems or better or worse?

    I don’t think good decisions can be made until you know these answers.

    and Obenshain and McDougle should be calling for that info… not only to bring more transparency to METRO but to insure that it’s not underfunded and that’s at the core of the issue.

  6. “Virginia should not fork over one red cent until WMATA can prove it won’t become a fiscal black hole”

    Oh good, WMATA just has to prove a negative. No problem.

  7. Haha! Fair enough. I was engaging in a little hyperbole. Let me re-cast the sentence:

    Virginia should not fork over one red cent until WMATA agrees to labor, operational and governance reforms of sufficient strength and durability to give taxpayers reasonable assurance that their added contributions will not be wasted.

    Better?

    • Nope… where are your metrics? How do you decide ” added contributions will not be wasted.” you just re-worded the same hyperbole… and that’s a continuing problem…

      if you want reforms – specify what they are and specify the thresholds that prove success…

      otherwise – its just more piling on with no real point to it.

      we could START with metrics from the industry – and depending on what ranking , METRO in Washington stacks up not badly against other systems –

      the problem, in my view… is that people want this system on the cheap. They want it to run with low costs but they have no clue what low costs are or are not.. so it just becomes a handly whipping boy – primarily for those who oppose the CONCEPT of METRO and METRO-like systems to start with and it’s doubly bad with Bacon because he says he supports Urban settlement patterns as “more efficient” and not requiring subsidies like the exurbs do!

      The funny thing here is that we never hear such “suggestions” for other areas. say.. VDOT – “FIx those potholes and congestion or we won’t fund you”! or for that matter local school systems… which most in Virginia spend more than twice as much money than the State actually requires… with no increase in SOL scores.. !!!

  8. We never hear such “suggestions” for other areas. say.. VDOT – “FIx those potholes and congestion or we won’t fund you”! or for that matter local school systems…

    VDOT: As a matter of fact, back in the early 2000s, you heard a lot — especially on this blog — about how VDOT projects were running chronically late and over budget. Gov. Warner brought in Philip Shucet to deal with the problem. Shucet engineered a major overhaul, and VDOT’s performance has been far superior since then.

    Schools: Bacon’s Rebellion has offered plenty of solutions for providing a better public education for Virginia’s school kids. You just don’t like them!

  9. yes.. VDOT was running late and over budget but was not accused of spending millions .. and having bad maintenance and safety issues because of incompetence.. and the like…

    Shucet did do a major overall which consisted of getting rid of projects that they accepted politically but had no money for… i.e. they were forced into putting projects on the 6yr plan – that they could not fund.

    on schools – I’m pointing to the current public schools including those in Henrico that spend twice as much money over and above what the state requires them to – and when have you advocated that they not spend that money – and only spend what the state requires?

    your “solutions” ALSO INVOLVE TAX DOLLARS – right?

    the impression I get is that you want taxpayers to pay for de-facto private schools, not held to the same standards as public schools… what kind of “solution” is that if you do not require some equivalent level of academic standards and accountability?

    but the point is – the current schools spend way more that the State requires and I’ve never heard you make that point… and demand that they spend less

    for the record – I’m FINE with other school options – as long as they are also held to the same academic and transparency – reporting … AND I continue to advocate that the public schools disclose exactly what they spend local discretionary money on…. that is not mandated by the state.


    methinks you sometimes pick and choose your “problems” to “report” using totally different standards!

    😉

  10. Hey – did you know that VDOT ..ALSO adheres to Davis-Bacon?

    http://www.virginiadot.org/business/civil_rights_contract_compliance_program.asp

    have we ever made the point that we pay too much for roads the same way we supposedly pay too much for Metro?

    and how many deficient bridges does VDOT have??? and do we accuse them of not properly maintaining their infrastructure and threaten to withhold their funding unless they “reform”?

    we just seem to try to hold METRO to a different standard… “whipping boy”.

    there is no question they have their issues… and need to address them… but what they’ve been pointing out is that they are, in fact, not sufficiently funded.

    if we held VDOT to a similar standard – we’d be threatening them the same way – that if they did not “reform” – we’d restrict their funding!

    Heck..when they screwed up the US 460 PPTA to the tune of 250 million or for that matter the Richmond Pocahontas Parkway -you woulda thought that was worse than anything METRO did! That loss was 500 million ….

    but did we ever advocate withholding money from VDOT until they “reformed”…???

    nosiree !!!

  11. NoVA residents already pay an additional 2.1% sales tax on gasoline to support transit. The money goes to the NVTC and much goes to WMATA. Fairfax County regularly issues bonds that go to WMATA’s capital needs and uses real estate and other local tax revenues to pay the associated debt service costs. We are already paying taxes.

    Any new taxes from Virginia should not be implemented until WMATA gets its labor costs in control For example, WMATA’s pension plan is based on overtime earnings. No other government pension plans do this. This should be ended for all workers ASAP. And going forward, the pension plan should be converted to a defined contribution plan or, perhaps, a hybrid plan weighted to defined contribution.

    If additional tax revenues are needed, they should be an additional property tax on real estate served by Metrorail. But for rail, these landowners would not have been permitted to build to otherwise unprecedented densities that, in turn, generate very high rents, sales prices and densities. Metro brings the profits, such that equity demands those making the profits pay more for the support of Metro.

    Moreover, we are starting to see the Tysons landowners try to walk away from their proffer commitments. For example, CapOne, which is building to very high density and has the future opportunity to sell land for development at comparable densities is proposing to lessen its contributions to public facilities. CapOne proffered, and the County accepted, a 30,000 square foot community center, including meeting rooms and a gym. Now CapOne wants to remove this proffer and replace it with a large auditorium with a stage, mainly for Company use. Instead of a facility controlled by the County for daily use, CapOne would control the facility and allow public use several times per month. CapOne also proffered (accepted) a U-9 soccer field controlled by the County and available to the public for daily use. Now CapOne wants to build to U-7 fields on top of parking garages controlled by CapOne and available only several days and nights a week, including to 11 pm. So think about this. A U-7 field is designed for children from say 4-6 years old. They can practice or play games at 10 pm.

    One of tenets of New Urbanism is walkability. CapOne proffered (accepted) an open space with a broad sidewalk and amenities between some of its buildings that would also provide connections between Metro and shopping/restaurants. Now CapOne wants to replace the open space with another building. Bye-bye walkability.

    Of course these changes are not a done deal, and some landowners have fulfilled their commitments. But reality has arrived. Tysons’ New Urbanism is deep down not about making Tysons a place to live, work and play. It’s about how much money can we make while minimizing the quid pro quo of providing adequate infrastructure and public facilities. It’s about “to hell with the public.” And if CapOne wins, watch the rest of the landowners move to cut their current obligations to the extent possible.

    There is no reason why the average Virginian should pay any higher taxes to support an even bigger transfer of wealth from the public to the Tysons landowners, much less keeping WAMTA’s inefficiencies in place.

    Thank goodness any new tax must be authorized by the General Assembly. And thank goodness for the Dillon Rule.

  12. I think it’s up to NoVa to fund METRO… and no other govt agency is held to the “reform or we’ll not fund you” standard.. not even VDOT!

    but all this time we’ve been hearing that NoVa subsidizes ROVA .. and it turns out it’s the other way around.. and people from other states also fund METRO via the Feds.

    NoVa is doing the same thing with METRO that Fairfax is doing with storm water runoff and Alexandria with CSOs.. not taking responsibility for their own affairs.. and expecting others to fund them.

    • I think the Commonwealth does fine by WMATA now. What I would like to see is the General Assembly authorize special real estate taxes on real property near the rail stations. Those landowners would not have either the market value or rental incomes they have without the presence of Metrorail. They need to pay for those benefits. And higher real estate taxes would give the landowners a dog in the fight to fix WMATA’s cost structure.

      And not just in Tysons. All land near a rail station is extremely valuable and only because of the presence of rail and the ability to gain density not otherwise available. It’s time for them to pay for what gave them the added value.

      • TMT – why should the State do that? Why doesn’t NoVa do that?

        • My personal view is that the transit advocates cannot think beyond a sales tax as they believe everyone benefits from rail. Some, but not all that much, IMO. Also, many smart growthers fear making density pay for itself might discourage density. And finally the real estate industry is a powerful lobby.

          Despite this, Fairfax County officials have been strongly affected by the voters rejection of the meals tax and the high 4 cent increase in real estate taxes that riled up a lot of people. I think the biggest jurisdiction will not blindly support a sales tax increase for WMATA. I

          Additionally, the Supervisors understand that WMATA’s needs/demands/wishes are so big that they will jeopardize the County’s ability to fund desired local programs. I believe the BoS will want to see major cost cuts at WMATA before supporting any new taxes.

  13. “Any new taxes from Virginia should not be implemented until WMATA gets its labor costs in control.” Absolutely so! Pensions currently based on overtime pay are certainly part of that ugly picture — this is an opportunity to use Virginia’s leverage to help get real reforms. But as for McDougle’s basic argument, “I have transportation problems closer to home,” he has to remember where all that NoVa tax revenue comes from and what a crippled Metro system would do to it. And we all know, rail and bus public transit operates at a loss (except when the cost of not having it, of sending all those people back onto the roads, is taken into account). Virginia has an obligation to support NoVa’s peculiar (to RoVa) transportation lifestyle for the sake of those taxes, or else DJR is right and we need to regionalize State government. Henrico is a substantial consumer of that tax revenue imbalance.

    That said, WMATA needs some tough love just now, including the aid commitments it requires ONLY with substantial, hard-negotiated strings attached, first among them, wholesale labor reforms. And among its jurisdictions, Virginia understands this best.

    • re: “Any new taxes from Virginia should not be implemented until WMATA gets its labor costs in control.”

      totally disagree. That becomes an obstructionist and damaging action that you not do to VDOT or any other agency for obvious reasons.

      it’s part of the “starve the beast” logic from some folks who are displeased with govt.

      VDOT has “labor costs” also … roads cost enormous amounts of money – 20-100 million per mile but people accept these numbers glibly as VDOT tells them this is what it costs. Bridges cost $100 a foot and up!

      Why do people accept VDOT’s math and not METRO?

      what’s the difference ?

      METRO has been and continues to be chronically underfunded yet it’s critics never want to know how much it should cost – only that it costs “too much”. These critics are the ones who oppose the CONCEPT of rail transportation to start with.

      Passive/aggressive attitudes towards METRO are not productive. ANY organization INCLUDING VDOT – needs reforms… you do that – but in the meantime – you do not cripple the organization until it meets some totally fuzzy and totally unspecified threshold for “reform” which is what the opponents are calling for. There is no specificity about what actually has to be done…

      it’s a dumb thing. I’m sorry. It’s just an ignorant approach.

      You don’t do that with Fairfax storm water problems and you don’t do that with Alexandria’s CSO problems.. you don’t do that when the police have problems… or higher ed has high tuition, or places like Petersburg or Richmond. It’s a dumb response to a frustrating problem.

  14. Here’s the key issue. What is the fiscal, operational, maintenance, capital benchmarks for a reasonably good transit system?

    Do any of the critics have a clue?

    There are dozens of transit systems in the US and many, many more around the globe. Where does WMATA sit in comparison?

    If we discounted the critics who question the CONCEPT of transit and the anti-union, anti-govt critics and the “only roads should get tax funding” critics -who is left as a legitimate critic on the merits?

    and how would those left rank WMATA compared to other transit systems?

    • One possible partial solution is to adopt the approach former Indianapolis mayor Richard Hudnut took. He gave government employees access to a CPA and allowed them to bid for work against private contractors. As I recall, sometimes the city employees won. Other times the outside contractors did.

  15. well.. it’s a pretty big system but I’m not opposed to QUALIFIED bidders to operate it… and I guarantee you that the cost to operate it will not be cheap and probably not even cheaper as such bidders are going to be fairly precise on what they do and what they do not do – for the money.

    but again, it makes no sense what-so-ever to talk about how much WMATA should cost if you have no idea what it SHOULD cost…

    this is sort of like arguing to VDOT that roads should not cost as much as they do – without a clue as to what those costs are or how they compare to other organizations that do roads.

    then going one step further – advocating that they be de-funding until they “fix” the problem when not only is the problem not defined but how you fix it is not defined.

    this cartoon describes the current critics and process:

  16. Ridership is way down; accidents continue to happen with some regularity; maintenance records are forged; fares and tax contributions are up. WMATA is a broken agency. The new GM is trying, but the board is a bunch of political hacks that have failed to provide oversight. I’d like to see the Corps of Engineers take over.

  17. TMT – the way you folks on WMATA – if you did that with VDOT – you could make the same case…. i.e.. traffic is terrible.. they’ve not fixed congestion… they got bridges that are rated as poor… they use Davis-Beacon for wages.. they’re charging tolls.. and the CTB is a bunch of political hacks…

    I agree that WMATA has some issues.. some of them long-standing but some of them are actually caused by chronic under-funding that has crippled their capital and maintenance programs and cause them to use steal from Peter to pay Paul crisis management…

    you cannot underfund ANY agency without it becoming a crippled and dysfunctional agency…

    beyond that – once again – I’d like to see REAL DATA that compares it to other transit agencies to see if it actually is inferior to the others – or not.

    WMATA is a big and complex operation… much like an airport – and how many problems have we seen with the airlines lately? Computer glitches galore.. people thrown off planes.. stuffing more and more seats on the planes … etc.

    I just think some of this is more about people’s political philosophies than about substance.. i.e. the idea that it’s run by the govt and is “subsidized”… has unions.. etc..

    Show me someone who supports the CONCEPT of transit – who says that: ” yes.. WMATA is terrible by comparison with other systems”…

    then I start to put some credence to it.

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