WASHINGTON — The leader of the conservative House Freedom Caucus indicated Wednesday that he would support continued or additional federal funding for major projects to improve safety and reliability across the Metro system.
Rep. Mark Meadows, a Republican representing North Carolina’s 11th District, told Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld at an oversight hearing that he sees the significant need for capital improvements to the Metro system.
“My concern is we need to put it in separate buckets, because right now we’ve got a capital investment that is needed, and certainly I see that. Those numbers can be all over the board,” he said.
And yet, regarding the operating concern, he said, “it looks like we’re on a trajectory that will not correct itself without unbelievable fare hikes or some kind of systemic changes.”
“Would you agree with that?” Meadows asked.
Wiedefeld confirmed that there is no way Metro’s projected operating costs can be covered without significant changes.
The general manager expects to release projections next month for Metro’s budget needs over the next three years and the next 10 years. He agreed with D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat, that in order for Metro to be sustainable, the agency will need a dedicated regional tax of some kind.
“I think we do need a sustainable source of revenue for going forward in the system, yes,” Wiedefeld said.
He would not reveal the scale of the updated budget projections, but recent data have suggested that in the coming years, needs could increase by hundreds of millions of dollars beyond current funding levels.
Meadows, the chair of the Subcommittee on Government Operations, which held Wednesday’s hearing, said he would help push for the federal government to play a role in covering that gap — if some conditions are met.
“It is going to take a joint, combined effort to get this right,” Meadows told Wiedefeld.
“I’m willing to help in a bipartisan way … from a congressional standpoint. But I don’t want to feel like I’m getting way out on a limb and not having a willing partner, and so that message needs to go to everyone, if you catch the drift.”
Meadows appeared to be alluding to D.C. Council member and Metro Board Chair Jack Evans, whom the committee did not have testify Wednesday during an hourlong hearing that was much less testy than a December hearing that the Democrat did attend.
“If they’re willing to do that, I’m willing to actually make a commitment. I get more complaints about WMATA here in the District than anything else,” Meadows said.
His commitment would include “potentially expending political capital in ways that I wouldn’t normally,” he said, in an effort to make sure that the system serves the federal workforce and the D.C. area in a way that it should.
Norton would like to see the federal commitment expand beyond the capital budget used for repairs, track upgrades and new rail cars to also cover some of the operating costs.
“There is a missing partner. Let’s just call them a free rider: the federal government,” she said.
The operating budget is funded largely through rider fares and parking fees, combined with contributions from local governments.
Metro has long faced warnings about financial and service crises, Norton pointed out. She cited a 1979 warning that Metro risked a permanent financial crisis, and a 2004 report that warned of systemic service meltdowns.
“And of course the metaphor of the day is ‘death spiral,’” she said of plans to raise fares while cutting service this summer.
A turnaround cannot come soon enough after years of riders losing confidence in the Metro system over financial, operational and other issues, said Rep. Gerry Connolly, a Democrat representing Virginia’s 11th District.
“For several years now, WMATA has been a system in crisis: All lights blinking red,” Connolly said. “We also have a workforce issue, and that workforce has been allowed to, I think, slip,” he added.
Connolly praised Wiedefeld as being “the first general manager in my memory who has had the intestinal fortitude to impose discipline,” but he challenged other agency leaders.
“Members of the WMATA Board of Directors at times seemed to have been incapable of resuscitating — much less managing — Metro,” Connolly said.
The brief hearing was ostensibly tied to a Government Accountability Office report that found significant issues with the way Metro rushed into 24/7 track work, but that also acknowledged Metro leaders felt there were urgent safety issues needing to be addressed.
“We don’t disagree that there was a major safety problem,” said Mark Goldstein, GAO director of physical infrastructure issues. “I ride the Red Line every day. I certainly want a safe train myself.”
But he told the committee that a yearlong $130 million plan should have been more thoroughly considered ahead of time, including a more-detailed analysis of alternatives.
“A lot of this wasn’t news [to Metro]. There’s a whole alphabet soup of agencies and organizations that have been providing Metro with safety violations and recommendations for a long time, for living memory really,” Goldstein said.
“So it’s a surprise that there was no planning on the shelf even that you could use. That the kinds of information that they had was not sufficient,” he said.
While Wiedefeld pointed to a reduction in unplanned delays on the rails last year, he emphasized that the round-the-clock work zones have only focused on the worst of the worst areas.
Rep. Barbara Comstock, a Republican representing Virginia’s 10th District, asked Wiedefeld whether Metro is using enough outside contractors in place of internal Metro workers.
Wiedefeld said Metro is spending tens of millions of dollars on track work contractors, consultants and others.
Metro’s largest union, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, expects to release its own plans Thursday for fixing Metro’s most pressing issues.