Washington Metro Needs another $1 Billion… Fast

The Washington Metro train wreck keeps piling up.

Washington Metro needs another $242 million from Virginia and its localities over three years.

The train wreck of the Washington Metro keeps piling up higher. The Washington Post sums up the situation this way: Local governments are “alarmed” as Metro says it needs an extra $1 billion over the next three years from Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C.

Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld has earned credibility as an executive willing to make tough decisions, such as shutting down rail service at times and locations where maintenance and repairs are urgently needed. Now he’s telling local governments in the Washington area that fulfilling his goals for safety and reliability — needed to reverse a continued decline in ridership — will cost them an additional $1 billion over what they’ve budgeted for the next three years. That translates into a 36% increase in annual operating subsidies. Writes the Post:

According to Metro’s new forecasts, the District’s total contribution for operations and capital would jump from $467 million in the current budget year to $735 million in fiscal 2020. Maryland’s total would rise from $479 million to $727 million, and Virginia’s would increase from $332 million to $574 million. (Metro’s fiscal years run from July 1 to June 30.)

“We have a $40 billion investment [in Metro], and it’s 40 years old,” said Wiedefeld. “As we replace that, there’s big numbers going forward, and they grow with inflation. . . . Either we start to wrestle with this so it’s where we want it to be, or we just push it down the road.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Maintenance is a bitch, especially when you fail to properly fund it over 40 years. Politicians love the accolades for building new highways, bridges and transit projects. Of course, the ribbon-cutters are long gone when the infrastructure wears out and someone else has to pay to fix it. I wonder how many other Metros there are in Virginia, quietly racking up unfunded maintenance liabilities while nobody notices.

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7 responses to “Washington Metro Needs another $1 Billion… Fast

  1. As someone who has worked on local government budgets for decades, I will give you some observations:

    A.) You recently highlighted the Richmond region success story concerning emergency communications. Do you know why that capital project was “successful”? Because nearly everyone on the political spectrum views “public safety” as “job one.” So, you get every police, fire, and EMS chief lobbying their city/county managers and political bodies all the time. Those projects end up getting the absolute best service from every dep’t “b/c the board/council says public safety is job one.”

    And that’s something you can’t ignore in these “maintenance” posts. CIP budgets are notorious for allowing public safety to jump to the head of line with some nice new shiny “need” ahead of mundane items. And schools are a close second (though sometimes they get some pushback).

    I can understand that folks want to give priority to “core functions”, but I think it’s irresponsible governance that leads to these capital project maintenance disasters. We can look across Virginia and see nice shiny Fire, EMS, and police facilities, substations, HQs, radio facilities, vehicles, special command center vehicles, etc. But should public safety (and schools) always get to jump ahead of the library or the county/city office building, or public transportation facilities because they are a “core” function? Should the Social Services building deteriorate to the point of nearly being condemned due to lack of maintenance so that the police department gets any and everything it asks for?

    B.) Put yourself in a Supervisor or Councilmember role: You have a 3 million dollar surplus: A.) You can cut a penny or two off the real estate tax; B.) You can fund an actual performance (not COLA) raise for staff for the first time in years; C.) Schools always complain about not having enough money-you can shut them up for a year by giving them a little extra; or D.) You have a couple of facilities that could use some touch up and preventative maintenance, but they’re not in “bad” shape right now. What do you think will happen with that surplus?

    • Your last paragraph is superb. Been there, done that. But if you’re asking what will really happen, there are additional outcomes: E.) when that surplus comes up for consideration you learn it’s already been committed publicly by the Mayor to ‘none of the above,’ a pet political project of his; or F.) on the same agenda, that audit commissioned last summer to put rumors to rest now shows the ‘surplus’ actually is a black hole hidden by lax or creative accounting (with a little personal gain thrown in); now you have to rescind the appropriation and clean up the mess.

  2. Part of the problem and not just METRO is that maintenance costs are often not built in to the budget and suddenly appear ad hoc as “emergencies”.

    And that’s because “low ball” wins in the initial requests for something…

    I just read that METRO has committed itself to additional cars on their trainsets so they can carry more especially at rush hour – Great idea… until we heard that they lack the electrical infrastructure to provide enough power to haul heavier loads!

    Now that calls into question the folks who made the proposal for longer trainsets – as well as those who approved it because neither asked for an analysis that would have identified these other costs.

    So now – these additional cars – apparently already ordered are going to sit unused until mo money is got – over and above the mo money they’re already asking for.

    METRO is truly a disaster.. a product of feckless and incompetent leadership that has gone on for years and now
    that they apparently have a competent person in charge – it is going to bring even more pain and even more skeletons fall out of the closets.

    • Metro was a disaster in the making from the get-go. The original Compact had too many crippling problems baked in, from the top-heavy, crazy-quilt governance structure to the Davis-Bacon Act mandate to the early decisions to build with only two tracks. Yet in spite of everything it has succeeded in making itself essential to the DC Region’s economy. Now we have to fix it. And as expensive as that will be, if you compare the cost to the true economic cost of the alternatives, that fix may still be a bargain.

      • And how about raising much of any needed money from those who benefit the most from Metrorail – landowners near rail stations? They have and are making billions in higher rent and resale values. Wages above $100K and pensions capped and a defined contribution plan instituted.

        • along the ideas that TMT espouses – special tax districts in the zones around METRO stations would seem to be a sustainable source of revenues – at least more sustainable than the current system which seems to lurch from one financial disaster to another and money grubbed however it can be from wherever it can be.

          Nothing so seriously undermines METRO that a lack of a sustainable funding source. That effectively destroys any semblance of planning.

          • If you look at taxes and other revenues for the Silver Line expansion, both Phase 1 and Phase 2, the biggest contributor by category is Dulles Toll Road Drivers. To avoid complexity, I’ll talk only about Phase 1. The total cost for constructing Phase 1 – East Falls Church to Whiele Road was $2.9 billion. The feds paid $900 million. The landowners in the tax district were obligated to pay up to $400 million (the tax is still being collected to service debt). I seem to recall the state contributed some $350 million to Phase 1 ($300 million recently to keep tolls lower). The rest of the money – $1.25 billion comes from higher fees on the Dulles Toll Road.

            Yet, according to all the traffic studies, these “involuntary funders” get no relief in congestion. This is crony capitalism at its worst. Phase 1 from an construction cost perspective is a huge transfer of money from the middle class (some higher earners tossed in ) to Bechtel and its partners and the landowners near the five rail stations constructed in Phase 1.

            What’s done is done. The funding plans for Phases 1 and 2 will not be redone. Likewise the Silver Line is a transportation asset that must be used for maximum public benefit. But there is no reason to compound the fundamental unfairness to ordinary people by imposing a sales tax to give WMATA a dedicated source of revenue. No more crony capitalism. The landowners near Metro stations (especially those within a 1/4 mile ring) have made hundreds and hundreds of millions in higher value for their investments, higher rents and higher resale revenues from the presence of Metrorail and should, therefore, contribute all dedicated revenues for WMATA from a supplemental real estate tax. They can then try to pass it along to their customers and buyers.

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