Hopes run high for historic Metro deals in Maryland and Virginia, but crucial details remain unresolved

Original Source | By: By Robert McCartney

February 21, 2018

Corporate executives and union leaders. Chamber of commerce presidents and environmentalists. Civic leaders from both the Washington suburbs and Baltimore. All favored giving Metro more state money.

The unanimity was a sign of the political momentum in Maryland, Virginia and the District propelling what would be a landmark deal to provide permanent, dedicated funding for the regional transit system.

In Richmond, both the full House and Senate passed separate bills that would give Metro earmarked funding. The District, which is strongly supportive of Metro, is expected to go along with whatever the states decide.

And the Trump administration cast a shadow over the otherwise sunny outlook by saying it wants to reduce federal funding for Metro.

“The jurisdictions are aligning for the first time in 50 years,” said Maryland state Sen. Brian J. Feldman (D-Montgomery), chief sponsor of one of the funding bills.

“We have a new leader who has done a great job,” said Virginia Del. Timothy D. Hugo (Fairfax), chairman of the House House Republican Caucus .

“Metro is extremely important to the vibrancy of our commonwealth, just like the port is,” said Virginia Del. S. Chris Jones (R-Suffolk), referring to the harbors at Hampton Roads, which have received substantial state support.

“Surely we will not get the Amazon headquarters if we allow Metro to wither on the vine,” Del. Richard C. “Rip” Sullivan Jr. (D-Fairfax) said.

The companies and business groups also have joined with other civic organizations, including environmental groups such as the Coalition for Smarter Growth and the Southern Environmental Law Center.

Despite the optimism, significant hurdles remain. Perhaps the biggest is Hogan’s insistence on limiting the increased funding to four years. Both bills in Virginia, as well as the Democratic-backed ones in Maryland, call for permanent dedicated funding.

Hogan, however, opposes an open-ended pledge of funds.

In another potential obstacle, the total contributions agreed upon by the three jurisdictions may fall short of the additional $500 million a year in dedicated funding that Wiedefeld says is necessary to ensure reliability and safety.

However, the bills being considered in Maryland would provide $125 million. Business groups and others are pushing hard to raise that to $167 million, but it’s not clear whether they will be successful.

Virginia House leadership has ruled out any tax increases, although there may be support for setting a floor for regional wholesale gasoline taxes. That could yield $17 million or more for Metro, on top of the $105 million, for a total of $122 million.

Wiedefeld said it is crucial to get the full $500 million from the three jurisdictions, because the White House has signaled it wants to reduce the federal government’s contributions.

The Trump administration last week proposed to reduce the federal subsidy to Metro from $150 million to $120 million in the next fiscal year. The White House budget office also said federal support to the transit agency needs to be “lessened” over the “long term”; the federal subsidy program for Metro is set to expire after 2019.

Hogan’s spokesman defended the governor’s position while noting that negotiations are continuing.

A key player in procuring federal funding is Rep. Barbara Comstock (Va.), the only Republican to represent a congressional jurisdiction that includes a Metro station. She said Friday she is “confident” that Congress will restore the full $150 million for Metro for the next fiscal year.

“I think if we have the reforms, it’s going to be a lot easier for me to make that case,” Comstock said.

A requirement for governance and labor reforms as a condition for getting extra money is also an issue in the state legislatures, especially Virginia.

The less-restrictive Senate bill calls for effectively shrinking the Metro board to eight by restricting the participation of the eight alternate members. It backs Wiedefeld’s commitment to 3 percent annual growth in the operating budget and does not include the labor provision.

It will be a daunting task to work out all these differences in Annapolis and Richmond in the relatively short time allotted. Virginia lawmakers must resolve the differences between their two competing bills by the scheduled close of the General Assembly session March 10.

Nonetheless, the progress has lifted the hopes of Metro and its backers that dedicated funding is on the way.

“Clearly there’s a sense that something has got to happen,” Wiedefeld said.

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