UPPER MARLBORO – From the House of Representatives to the Prince George’s County Council, Metro leaders are being called to explain the state of affairs at the transit agency.
The council heard from Metro’s General Manager Paul Wiedefeld and Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) board members Malcolm Augustine and Jack Evans, who serves as the body’s chair, about the problems facing Metro. They then took the opportunity to raise issues of their own and offer their own suggestions.
Wiedefeld said in his six months as general manager, he has discovered many problems, from a lacking safety and customer service culture to years of delayed maintenance. He said he is working to address those issues by changing the structure and personnel at Metro and, for maintenance, proceeding with SafeTrack, an ambitious program that will condense three years of maintenance into just one.
That requires line segment shutdowns and long-term single tracking to give maintenance workers enough time on the tracks.
“That is the normal course of business with a system that is 40 years old, that is past middle age. You have to take some time to get out on the tracks,” he said.
Evans focused mostly on the financial burdens faced by the system, which is looking at a $2.8 billion bill for new train cars and a $2.5 billion unfunded pension liability on top of yearly operating deficits.
As he has in many other forums, he used the opportunity to push for the establishment of a dedicated funding source for Metro.
“We’re the only system in America that doesn’t have such a source. We need something like a 1 percent sales tax for Maryland, D.C. and Virginia in order to fund this system,” Evans said.
Jim Coleman, chief executive officer of the county’s economic development corporation, disagreed that there was “no other alternative.” He said public-private partnerships between Metro or area governments and private businesses could also lead to an influx of money into the system.
“Our economy is better than it was five years ago, but asking the taxpayers – whether it’s at the federal, state or county level – to contribute another $300 million through increased fares, I just don’t think that’s the way to go when you have billionaires within a 50-mile radius that would love to take on this opportunity to be a partner with you in helping to finance this,” he said.
Councilman Todd Turner said the new funding source would be a very hard sell without the agency making improvements to its safety and reliability reputation.
“We need to prove to those that fund this organization that this organization is capable of performing the way we expect it to and the way it has in the past. I think, to get that buy-in both by the governor and by the General Assembly, we have to be able to prove that,” he said.
Several members of the General Assembly attended the briefing and made their voices heard as well.
Delegate Tony Knotts (D-26) questioned the high fares charged by Metro and asked if they would be cut during SafeTrack work.
Evans said that was something the board was looking at in the longer term, and said, speaking as a citizen, he thought fees should change permanently.
“On the fee structure, I will give you my own personal opinion. I don’t like our fee structure right now. It makes no sense. People can’t even figure out when you’re in these suburban jurisdictions how much you have to pay. And so we need to reform that structure,” he said.
Delegate Erek Barron (D-24) asked hard questions about the proposal developed jointly by Maryland, Virginia and D.C. to set up a Metro Safety Commission as required by law and whether the current draft would be effective.
Specifically, Barron wanted to know about the possibility of moving Metro’s Office of the Inspector General under the authority of the new safety commission. He said the agency itself has not been utilizing the inspector general (IG) appropriately.
“In the IG’s office, one, there have been reports that the office has caught, but hasn’t been acted on. The office is underfunded; it’s understaffed,” he said.
Evans said the board was looking at reforming that office and welcomed Barron’s suggestion.
“The Inspector General, in my view, has not performed in the manner I would have hoped,” he said. “We need to beef up the office and maybe your suggestion is a good one.”
But Barron wasn’t done, pivoting to the larger issues of Metro’s government and finances already brought up by Evans and Wiedefeld. He said they could impact the approval of the safety commission as well.
“There are many who believe a new compact for a Metro Safety Commission is really much ado about nothing if it doesn’t include changes in governance and financing. I’m wondering if our GM has a response to that,” he said.
Wiedefeld responded that those issues are important, but were better addressed separately from the issue of the compact.
“In terms of a larger compact change, I think that’s more into the future as the Council of Governments’ effort proceeds because that’s where you’re going to have to get into some of those thornier issues. But I think it’s very important for us to keep the focus on getting the safety commission set up as quickly as possible,” he said.
Evans added that in his role as a D.C. councilman, he would lead the effort to get the measure passed there.
“I am committed for the District of Columbia to introducing the legislation at our July 12 meeting. No matter what shape it’s in, I’m introducing it,” he said.
His fellow board member, Augustine, focused on the development side of Metro and how the agency is trying to leverage itself in order to bring more economic development projects to the areas around Metrorail stations in Prince George’s County, as has happened in Montgomery County and Washington, D.C.
He acknowledged the stations in Prince George’s are almost all underdeveloped, which he called “unacceptable.”
“One of the challenges we have found in Prince George’s County is a practice, not a policy, but a practice at WMATA of requiring one-for-one replacement of parking spaces. Parking spaces are very expensive. It often makes the projects untenable,” he said.
One solution he worked on as part of the board’s real estate committee was to change minds within WMATA about the parking requirements.
But Councilwoman Andrea Harrison objected to the reduction in the number of parking spaces available at Metro stations.
“Everyone is not going to live on top of a Metro. Everyone is not going to be walking distance to a Metro. Some people are going to have to drive to get there. As it is now, it’s very difficult to park at many of our Metro stations,” she said. “Whether we like it or not, this is still basically a suburban community with urban pockets.”