Virginia in No Rush to Address Impending Metro Meltdown

metroby James A. Bacon

The McAuliffe administration seems to be in no hurry to bail out the ailing Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) commuter rail system crippled by declining ridership and an $18  billion capital spending shorttfall over the next ten years. Bolstering state support for the transit authority, which has been plagued for decades by union featherbedding and short-sighted, politically driven decision-making, would divert billions from other projects around Virginia.

At a recent discussion of Virginia’s rail and transportation budget Tuesday, Virginia Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne said there are no immediate plans to send more money to Metro, although there could be discussions with the General Assembly in the future.

“At some point, based on the estimates that I have seen as to what the capital needs are going to be, there’s obviously going to be that discussion for additional revenues,” Layne said, as quoted by the Washington Post. “That is not contemplated in these budgets.”

Bacon’s bottom line: This discussion is unavoidable, and the sooner it starts, the better. The Washington Metro is mission-critical transportation infrastructure for Northern Virginia and the rest of the Washington region. It cannot be allowed to fail. Failure to address the system’s maintenance needs will result in more accidents, more delays, more malfunctioning escalators and other conditions that drive away ridership, which in turn will cut into operating revenues.

At the same time, Virginia taxpayers are understandably reluctant to pour billions of dollars down a rat-hole, diverting funding from their own much-needed transportation projects, without some assurances that the commuter rail system can be made to run efficiently. Among major concessions that I would push for are higher fares, revisions to union contracts, prioritization of maintenance funding over expansions of the system, and an overhaul of the governance system.

Working out an agreement that satisfies constituencies in Virginia, Maryland and D.C. will be incredibly difficult, given the different ideological and geographic interests involved — not to mention the inevitable turnovers in political leadership. Negotiations could take years. Metro doesn’t have years. Discussions need to start immediately. McAuliffe could show leadership by convening a high-level confab to bring together major stakeholders from across the Washington region and surfacing the major issues that must be resolved.

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23 responses to “Virginia in No Rush to Address Impending Metro Meltdown

  1. Get Trump to negotiate a better deal for Virginia

  2. I was in the area Monday through Wednesday this week and used the Metro Monday and Tuesday. It’s hard for me to see how the system can handle many more people – it was unbelievably crowded when I was on it.

    How do we know for sure that union costs have drained the budget?

  3. Is METRO’s problem unions and different from other subway systems in the US?

    Why don’t we compare subway systems to see how METRO compares to others and see if union is the problem?

  4. The pay and benefits for WMATA employees is out of line with the market and reality. But the biggest problem is the lack of oversight by board members for years and years. It’s the people at the top who are responsible for the character of the organization.

  5. Does METRO have a stable source of funding to pay for safety and operational needs?

    • Larry- No. METRO is funded by annual appropriates from VA, MD, DC, and the Federal Gov’t, all of which can and do vary from year to year. The lack of a dedicated funding source (not quite the same as a stable funding source) is often cited by the METRO directors as a major impediment to long term planning by METRO.

      • it’s hard to plan safety improvements and upgrades if you don’t have a funding source. this is how things go to hell in a handbasket although it sounds like they also need more competent management

        the union thing – my impression is that most subway/rail systems are union so unless there is something unique and bad about Metro – I’ll chalk that up to the standard right-wing anti-union theology and not really germane to the discussion.

  6. I hope any $ used to rescue the Metro comes from a Northern Virginia regional tax. I don’t know why those of us on the other side of the state should be expected to pay for the Metro’s mismanagement and screw ups. VDOT spent billions over the years building up Northern Virginia’s roadways. When Hampton Roads went to the state with it’s critical transportation needs, we were shown the door. We ended up funding our transportation investment through tolls and local and regional taxes.

  7. don’t look now – but NoVa also has a regional sales tax for transportation and lots of tolls on I-495 and I-95 and more planned for I-66 and I-395 and further south on I-95.

    tolls in general and congestion tolls in particular are going to become a standard feature in our urbanized areas. There is just no financially viable way to meet unlimited demand and once a price is put on each trip – people start to put a value on it – as they really should.

    Better to have tolls and a network that functions even at rush hour – than no tolls and daily gridlock.

    all-you-can-drive for one low price is going away – now if you drive more and drive more at rush hour – it’s gonna cost you.

  8. I don’t support a special, dedicated tax for WMATA because the Agency is unresponsive to the public when it has to seek funding annually. I can only imagine what it would be like if it was insulated from the need to request money annually.

    If a tax is to be imposed, the tax should be a special property tax levied on properties within 1/4 to 1/2 mile of a Metro stop or a bus terminal (not individual bus stops). Those are the ones who have the most benefit from transit. Despite the bad local economy in Fairfax County and the worst commercial vacancy rate since 1991, companies are moving to expensive locations being built within a quarter mile plus of the Tysons rail stations. And ditto for high-rent apartments. Both the property owners and their tenants want to be near to Metrorail and are benefiting. Let them pay for the benefits. And the higher taxes would put pressure on WMATA to operate more efficiently and safely.

    • That would be nice, to only tax those close to Metro, but I don’t see that happening. I suppose a NoVA regional gaso tax increase could be an approach. One thing they need to do is put a floor on the regional 2% gaso tax we have now in NoVA.

      • The 4-cent hike in Fairfax County’s real estate tax (plus the higher bills for increased assessments) has a lot of people unhappy. Add to that the proposed meals tax for the November ballot – with most of the money reportedly ear-marked for the never-satisfied school system, which, in turn, provides very little left for real estate tax relief. I don’t think too many people will be out to support more higher taxes for WMATA, especially given its total lack of credibility.

  9. >>the union thing – my impression is that most subway/rail systems are union so unless there is something unique and bad about Metro – I’ll chalk that up to the standard right-wing anti-union theology and not really germane to the discussion.>>

    Amazing. Simply amazing. Look at the monkey. Look at the monkey. Don’t look at this elephant over here. Not germane.

  10. if you do not adequately fund ANYTHING – bad stuff will result.

    short fund the military , the TSA, FEMA, etc… and what happens?

    unions or not – Crazy…

    If Crazy knows of rail operations that are not Unionized that run better, cheaper, quicker, etc – please by all means point them out.

    but just responding to any issue claiming that unions are the issue is monkey thinking…for sure…

    Virtually every plane you fly on these days has a union crew – where are the critics arguing for non-union crews?

    why I bet we could cut air fares in half if we did not have union crews, eh?

  11. It’s not the Union thing per se. There are still a number of companies (airlines, Verizon, AT&T) that have labor unions. And federal law gives individuals the right to join a labor union and bargain collectively. But private businesses have the same incentive to bargain as aggressively as the union reps on the other side.

    Not so with government entities that are operated, ultimately, by elected officials – some of which get their largest campaign contributions from labor unions. We don’t have an equally motivated party on the employer side, most especially when they can fund some or all of the bargained for compensation, etc., from taxpayer dollars.

    To wit: several Chicago city council members have called for the replacement of TSA employees with private security providers at O’Hare and Midway airports because of the disaster in screening passengers that, in turn, is hurting Chicago. But big Democrat mayor Rahm Immanuel has rebuked that position, saying TSA must perform those functions and preserve government jobs. Unions and government jobs above his constituents.

    Labor unions are fine in the public sector, so long as employees also have the right to work. But FDR was so right when he said there is no place for labor unions in the public sector.

  12. Again – most transit systems in the world have union workers.

    One might have a personal or political philosophy opposed to public sector unions but that does not translate to a specific transit systems problems unless you can show something unique to that system -specific to the unions.

    that opposition only pollutes the discussion if there are other things that do matter.

    If you underfund maintenance and safety – it causes disasters. we’ve seen that both in public and private operations.

    Do you REALLY want to turn TSA over to the private sector who will let money be the bottom line when hiring and implementing security?


    so why not let the airlines do it and get the govt out of it all together?

    Back to WAMTA – it could well be that management is incompetent. But one might well ask – is it because they don’t pay enough to attract top notch people with proven records of managing transit systems?

    but you can’t really advocate not funding it adequately then blame them for safety failures… unless of course you’re ideologically opposed to the concept of transit to start with – and really want it to fail to “prove” that govt is incompetent and unable to really run transit anyhow.

    to me – this is why the right fails today. They really have no answers. they actually seem to want failure …. but that gets us nowhere.. METRO is not going to go away – even Conservatives claim it cannot fail.. but all they can do is find things to blame – not things to make it succeed. So those guys needs to go sit down.

  13. @TMT – like METRO – is the problem – not enough resources to process the load or is it something else?

    again – if you do not adequately fund something – you get slow service and other problems.

    Now – if the TSA was having problems at ONE airport – one might say that money is not the problem – but if you’re getting backups at most of them then what does that say? The ones that are privatized – are they seeing backups or not? do they have more or less personnel? are they cheaper or more expensive or the same cost as Chicago?

    I’m totally in favor of more cost-effective services and functions but I’m pretty skeptical that the TSA or METRO are “bad” because of fatal flaws associated with being government-run or unions…

    People blather on and on about the Post Office unions but how many of them realize that UPS is also union?

  14. @TMT – re: ” But private businesses have the same incentive to bargain as aggressively as the union reps on the other side.

    Not so with government entities that are operated, ultimately, by elected officials – some of which get their largest campaign contributions from labor unions. We don’t have an equally motivated party on the employer side, most especially when they can fund some or all of the bargained for compensation, etc., from taxpayer dollars.”

    My impression – and perhaps it’s wrong and you can show me is that overall – there is far, far more corporate money involved in politics than union money. Yes – you can point to some individual politicians who do support unions and as a result are more heavily funded by unions but in terms of sheer numbers – far more politicians are funded from corporate than union.

    Part of the problem is the purposeful deception – by groups who really don’t want the actual facts provided and they fool those who are doing quick searches or get their info from biased sites.

    here’s what Open Secrets says:

    All Contributions, 2015-2016

    Business (74.6%)
    Labor (3.0%)
    Ideological (5.6%)
    Other (13.2%)

    Grand Total Democrats Republicans Dem % Repub %
    Business $1,364,332,654 $397,657,771 $549,235,927 42% 58%
    Labor $54,955,861 $21,933,316 $4,640,017 83% 17%
    Ideological $102,678,300 $33,959,634 $34,529,747 50% 50%
    Other $242,150,008 $94,128,992 $100,635,819 48% 52%

    • Those numbers reflect campaign contributions only. They do not reflect in-kind contributions like get-out-the-vote efforts or spending on referenda, areas where labor unions have a big impact.

      • well that’s not the typical claim – that people make…. as if it were the truth… which it is not… it’s a lie promoted by dishonest sites to obscure the truth.

        so… we switch modes when confronted with the facts –
        then provide a link from a credible, unbiased site to prove it.

        isn’t this what you folks want to believe – instead of actual facts?

        I’m fine with the facts. I can live with them but I cannot accept the dishonest way these issues are presented by folks who are biased politically and mislead the gullible and lazy.

        so provide some facts to back up the claim.

  15. re: public sector unions –

    It’s totally true they should not have the right to strike – I also support that restriction.

    but in terms of being able to collectively bargain and to lobby elected – they should have that right in my view.

    it’s more than just money that is the subject of concern. It’s often about employment policies, work rules, etc.. which even the govt has been found to violate.

    Often – what’s you’ll hear is that the govt employees are going to “work to the rules” – because the reality is – that even the govt will stand by and let bosses force employees to do work – that is not in their position statement and/or do work they will not get paid for.

    Many employees – even for the govt – will do what they must to keep their jobs but they do need a way to address unfair – even illegal treatment which has been shown to be the case – over time – as individual bosses and even organizations will implement their own rules, mistreat employees – intimidate them, etc. So there needs to be a way for employees to have a voice as a group rather than be victimized as individuals who end up by themselves up against a rogue boss or agency. There are actual documented examples of hostile workplace environments – in the government.

    but striking? no – I do not support public employees have the right to strike because in most cases they are doing the kind of work that cannot be suspended without harm to safety and security.

    transit workers and school teachers are not quite in that realm and neither are postal workers but they do provide vital services that the public does depend on – but I support collective bargaining for them to seek changes.

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