Lawmaker writes Gov. Hogan to talk Metro

ROCKVILLE, Md. — A Montgomery County lawmaker has written Gov. Larry Hogan to ask for his help to improve Metro after a rough year for the transit agency and its riders.

Montgomery County Councilmember Roger Berliner wrote the letter as the chairman of the Committee for Transportation and the Environment for the legislative body.  He says it’s been a rough few years for Metro and he hopes the governor can help turn things around.

“The issues that have overwhelmed WMATA — safety, financial, quality of service, governance — demand more than incremental changes,” writes Berliner.

He urges the governor to push for a permanent general manager to be hired as soon as possible, as well as a full-time Board of Directors with a sole focus on the transit agency.

“This agency is too big and too important to have people who have other jobs overlooking this institution,” Berliner tells WTOP, although he praises the work done by current board members like Michael Goldman of Maryland and Leif Dormsjo of D.C.

It’s been a tough year for Metro.  In January, Metro had the deadly smoke incident at L’Enfant Plaza.

This spring, the Federal Transit Administration released a scathing report into the agency’s safety and finances.  In August, an empty Metro train derailed outside the Smithsonian station several weeks after a rail defect was detected and then accidentally deleted.  Last week, Metro released a report card called “Vital Signs” showing that it failed to meet targets on 8 of 10 categories.

“It’s troubling to hear that Metro failed on eight of the Vital Signs that it tracks.  It’s clear they are not meeting key performance metrics.  They must do so and we must tie additional funding to them doing so,” Berliner says.

The conversation is the background for what will be a prolonged debate about Metro finances. Metro’s Chief Financial Officer Dennis Anosike told board members last week that while ridership remains flat, or possibly dropping, expenses like labor costs continue to grow.  Without fare revenue from riders to match growing expenses, Metro is in a tough spot to make ends meet.

One option is Metro could raise fares.  In recent years, Metro has raised fares every two years and the last fare increase was in 2014.  However, D.C. Councilman and board member Jack Evans already made it clear last week that the city will not support any fare hikes or service cuts in 2016.  It appears that Maryland could join the charge against the hikes too.

“We are pricing people out.  If you combine high prices with poor performance, we are going to be in a death spiral.  We need to reduce fares because it’s pricing people out of getting onto Metro,” Berliner says.

One reason Berliner is writing Hogan is because lawmakers in Annapolis assign Metro board members, not the county.

“As solving Metro’s woes will depend on regional, inter-jurisdictional solutions, I would highly recommend working with Gov. (Terry) McAuliffe and Mayor (Muriel) Bowser to convene a regional summit that would include all the key players and stakeholders to push this important conversation forward,” Berliner writes.

All these problems have led to critics of Metro to form groups to press rider issues.  Metro rider Chris Barnes, known on Twitter as @FixWMATA, recently formed the WMATA Riders Union to address the concerns of riders.

“These are real people who are critical of Metro that don’t feel they have been heard and, quite frankly, I don’t think they have been heard.  So I totally understand it,” Berliner says.

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