Metrorail (Photo Courtesy).

WASHINGTON – Four U.S. Senators announced at a press conference plans to propose a bill to renew the 10-year funding commitment for Metro’s capital budget, which will end after the fiscal year.

On May 23, U.S. Sens. Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin (both D-MD), along with Sens. Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine (both D-VA), proposed the Metro Safety, Accountability and Investment Act of 2019.  The Senate bill would renew the $150 million that the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) receives from the federal government each year. The precursor to the proposed bill was the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act (PRIIA).

In addition to renewing the funding commitment, the bill would add $50 million only if Metro strengthens its inspector general position. The agency would also need to “implement policy and procedures for a new capital planning process” for the extra funding, according to a news release.

The bill also calls to improve planning for asset management and to “reinforce restrictions on the activities” of alternate Metro board members. According to the senators, the bill’s requirements would give Metro “more effective Board management and oversight.”

In 2008, “Congress stepped up for a 10-year commitment, $150 million,” Warner said. “That money is running out this year. So, we are introducing new legislation that will re-establish for the next 10 years (a) $150 million (annual) commitment to Metro, and, in addition, we will add a $50-million additional funding stream.”

The bill would also bar Metro from using federal money to purchase its 8000-series railcars from a Chinese manufacturing company.

The senators said they wanted to “make Metro stronger.”

Van Hollen said the bill outlined that federal funds would be contingent on Metro not hiring a Chinese company to manufacture the 8000 series railcars.

The senators said that purchasing Chinese railcars poses a national security risk- they fear that China could hack the trains. Several reporters asked how the senators would prevent Metro from buying Chinese railcars.

“This is a matter of national security,” said Cardin on the railcar question. “I think Metro understands the concern of Congress. This is not just four senators feeling this way. This is pretty well documented by the information we have received, and so we will work with Metro to make sure that…Chinese technology does not get into equipment that is needed by Metro.”

Cardin also said the senators would “find a way” for Metro to obtain the railcars while complying with federal law.

“It’s a risk we should not take,” remarked Van Hollen on security concerns about railcars from China.

Without the funding being renewed, Metro would have to find an additional $150 million a year toward its capital budget. The funding jurisdictions — Maryland, Washington, D.C. and Virginia — approved in historic legislation that they would each contribute $50 million a year. The federal bill, as with the PRIIA funding starting in 2008, would “match” what these funding jurisdictions contribute, a total of $150 million, except for the additional $50 million.

“In addition to increased funding, this bill includes crucial safety improvements and oversight reforms,” said Van Hollen, a member of the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs. “I’m proud to join my colleagues in introducing this measure as we work to ensure safe and dependable transportation throughout the region.”

The senators said they believe that Republican senators understand the importance of preserving the Metro system.

“This is the nation’s Metro system. At peak hours, 40 percent of the ridership are federal workers,” Cardin said. “The Metro system is critically important to our country.”

The proposed bill would request additional restrictions on alternate, non-voting Metro board members.

“We’re leaving a lot of the decisions up to Metro and the states on that issue,” said Van Hollen. “We do think that the board needs to. They need to act with unity.”

Before the senators’ press conference, the Metro Accountability and Investment Act — a similar bill to the Metro Safety, Accountability and Investment Act of 2019 — was introduced May 3 in the U.S.  House of Representatives. Rep Gerald Connolly (D-VA-11) sponsored the bill, with co-sponsors representing D.C., Maryland and Virginia. Maryland Reps. John Sarbanes (D-3), David Trone (D-6) and Jamie Raskin (D-8) were among the co-sponsors.   

Cardin said he believes the government can continue funding $150 million to Metro annually.

“That funding, $150 million a year, has been there every single year,” Cardin said. “So, we have the predictable federal funding source. It’s now necessary to take it to the next level.”

Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld and Metro broad Inspector General Geoffrey Cherrington attended the press conference, held at the entrance of Capitol South Station in Washington, D.C.

Wiedefeld said the proposal to add $50 million of funding was “fantastic” and would give Metro additional “buying power” as costs of Metro’s work increases over time.

“Every day, we welcome visitors from around the country and the world, requiring us to maintain the safest, most-reliable and world-class transit system possible,” said Jack McDougle, president and CEO of the Greater Washington Board of Trade and founding member of the MetroNow Coalition. “That’s why we and our partners in the MetroNow coalition urge Congress to pass this legislation.”

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