SEABROOK – Funding and maintenance for Metro are the talk of the region, and Maryland lawmakers have developed a proposal to tackle those issues and more in an attempt to help the struggling transit system.
On June 19, 10 members of Maryland General Assembly released a report outlining the reforms they believe would make Metro a better system. The plan spans everything from governance to oversight and includes an idea for dedicated funding: using Maryland’s Transportation Trust Fund. The goal of the proposal is to create a more stable system that can meet riders’ needs and, in the county especially, economic development goals.
“The big thing is we wanted to be able to add some stability and long-term viability to Metro. To do that, we have to look at the overall structure,” said Del. Carlo Sanchez (D-47B).
The report, titled “Metro Reform: A Maryland Approach,” describes the lawmakers’ vision for all aspects of the system.
“We mean Metro must be a system where fares do not continuously rise annually or biannually. Metro must be an option that riders can rely on for their regular transportation needs and not have to budget an hour of extra time to use. Metro must work, meaning a disabled bus or train, broken elevator, or stalled escalator is much more of a rarity. Metro must draw riders back in and grow beyond historical ridership by providing a high quality experience,” the report says.
The legislators suggest several changes to help make this a reality. One of the larger asks is to reform Metro’s governance system. Currently, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority is governed by a Board of Directors with 16 members, four from each contributing jurisdiction. The proposal would abolish that body and replace it with a Board of Secretaries, made up of the secretaries of transportation of Maryland and Virginia and director of transportation for the District of Columbia. It also removes the jurisdictional veto, a procedure in current Metro governance rules that allows a single jurisdiction that’s opposed to an action to stop it unilaterally.
“Because of the way we’re proposing to reduce the board, to get anything done you would need two out of the three secretaries,” said Del. Erek Barron (D-24), another report signatory. “I just don’t think in that context a jurisdictional veto is necessary.”
Sanchez said simplifying the structure will also make it easier for legislators and other officials to hold Metro accountable. He said the current structure, where each jurisdiction has appointees, is “cumbersome.”
“We’re getting a lot of hands out of the pot,” he said. “It’s also about making sure there’s a clear line in terms of, if there’s a problem, who’s responsible? For the jurisdictions who are setting aside money, who can we go to?”
The group also proposes reforming other existing Metro structures, including the office of the inspector general (OIG), the Riders Advisory Council and Accessibility Advisory Committee. The latter two would be combined into one Riders Council with a dedicated staff and budget and appointees from the jurisdictions, including bus riders, rail riders and paratransit riders. The OIG would also receive a fixed percentage of the budget and more authority to provide oversight.
Barron said this approach would be more feasible than creating entirely new structures in an organization as big as Metro, with so many stakeholders.
“I think it’s clear that there’s a lot of disagreement about governance, but one of the easiest ways to beef up day-to-day oversight is to strengthen what is already there,” he said. “No one really wants to make a commitment to funding without fundamental changes in oversight. We don't want to throw good money after bad.”
Turning to the question of money, the proposal suggests each jurisdiction should decide for itself how to provide a steady, dedicated funding stream for the transit system. For Maryland, the legislators say the Transportation Trust Fund (TTF) already serves as the funding mechanism, so they suggest creating a new Metro Capital Trust Fund to divert TTF money into for Metro’s capital needs. If that wouldn’t yield enough money, they also endorse a tax.
Sanchez said it would be a hard sell, but he thinks residents could see the benefits.
“Whenever you talk about taxes, it’s a difficult conversation because everybody already feels overtaxed,” Sanchez said. “If there’s a good way for us to show a correlation between this stable funding, which will allow them to keep fares relatively level, which means ridership goes up, I think riders can see the ultimate benefit.”
And overall, an improved Metro system – even if residents pay more taxes to get it – will benefit the county, both delegates believe. Many of the county’s long-term growth plans center around building up the areas around the Metro stations, and developers will be more willing to invest if the transit system is in better shape.
Barron said development around Metro stations is lacking in this county currently, and that helping reverse that trend is in Metro’s best interests, too.
“Thirty-some percent of riders in Montgomery County actually walk to Metro, whereas only 11 percent in Prince George’s do,” he said, citing a recent study. “As Prince Georgians we don’t need that study to know that our stops are kind of orphaned by the system. The bulk of potential increases in ridership and therefore revenue for Metro is in Prince George's County. But we’re not going to get there without a partnership.”
Both legislators say they have not gotten an official response from Metro to their plan, but the report notes that the reforms don’t preclude the other changes proposed by Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld.