WASHINGTON — Infighting over how to raise more money for Metro as part of a broader package of reforms threatens to derail key pieces of attempts to reach a regional agreement that could be presented to the General Assemblies in Richmond, Virginia and Annapolis, Maryland.
Fairfax County Executive Ed Long, who also plays a key role on the Council of Governments Technical Panel that recommended a region-wide sales tax to fund Metro capital projects, said a separate Loudoun County proposal to repurpose existing contributions would simply be a Band-Aid that could leave the system worse off a decade from now.
“The Loudoun proposal — and these are my words — I think assumes that nothing will get done, and therefore we need to come up with a plan as to what will happen,” Long said at a Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Transportation Committee meeting Tuesday.
At a Monday meeting of the technical panel to discuss that proposal and get closer to finalizing a report, Long said a straw vote rejected the Loudoun proposal.
But Loudoun County Supervisor Matt Letourneau, who is on the Metro Strategy Group that is going to get the panel’s final report, said the proposal could be a piece of a larger package or provide an important bridge to a longer term fix.
“I don’t think it’s surprising that when you ask a group of unelected staff if they would rather have a new tax that they could spend money with, or something like this which requires them to pool resources and go through a bonding process, that they would rather have the new tax,” said Letourneau, a Republican.
“But that is not the question that the Council of Governments board is asking the technical panel,” Letourneau said. “We are asking for what options are technically viable. What options exist to allow us to fund Metro’s needs.”
A special service district agreement among some or all local jurisdictions could allow them to commit to providing a specific amount of cash to Metro each year in a way that could allow Metro to issue bonds.
“What Loudoun County has been exploring is a way to better utilize the funding that the jurisdictions are already contributing to Metro,” Letourneau said. “I think we all agree that Metro needs more funding and we all agree that Metro needs a way to better leverage its funding so that it can finance its purchases.”
While that would keep local contributions steadier in the short term, it would mean more payments go to bondholders down the line.
Challenges for the change include the requirement that all local and state contributions be made in cash rather than through bonds. There are also potential questions about how highly-rated bonds would be that are issued based on the service district.
Virginia’s government would likely need to put up $85 million in cash in the first year rather than debt financing.
Long also raised additional questions about whether Metro would really control the money and how long it might take to set up such a funding structure.
“The bottom line was, is that the Loudoun proposal, I think, everyone viewed as a short-term solution. In 10 years, you would still have the same problem. It would be a larger problem potentially when you get to 10 years and just sort of a straw vote was, I think, all but one of the jurisdictions agreed that we should go for the long-term solution. Now is a good time … we’ve got the attention as a region,” Long said.
“The group agreed that we didn’t need any more technical analysis, that we write up the final report and we forward it to the chairman’s group, but basically, I think the vast majority felt that we needed to go for the long-term solution,” he added.
Fairfax County Board Chairman Sharon Bulova, a Democrat, is leading the Metro Strategy Group that is supposed to come up with a politically feasible regional plan for Metro funding.
Part of that discussion is deciding how much additional money Metro needs, likely between $400 and $650 million per year.
While General Manager Paul Wiedefeld said a reasonably achievable goal is $15.5 billion in total projects over the next decade that would require around $500 million in new annual dedicated funding, Metro actually has identified $25 billion in needs that could be addressed if money and the time it takes to complete projects were no object.
“Once we’ve determined what it is that’s needed and what it is that we’re asking for, our discussion is, how do we split the bill?” Bulova said.
“We determined pretty quickly that one-third, one-third and one-third is not fair for Virginia, and interestingly, our biggest ally in making that case was Roger Berliner from Montgomery County, who said why should Virginia subsidize Montgomery County by putting more money in than is fair for our stations and our riders?”
That means the most likely outcome is a division based on an existing formula that spreads costs across D.C., Maryland and local Virginia jurisdictions based on ridership, the number of stations and a number of other factors.
Letourneau supports that as well, but said no final decisions have been made and all options need to remain on the table since local governments may have limited input in any final decisions.
“This is up to the General Assembly in Richmond, the Maryland General Assembly in Annapolis, and the D.C. city council to give us authority to do certain things,” Letourneau said.
After “extensive” conversations with members of the Republican-dominated General Assembly in Virginia, Letorneau said there seems to be little appetite to allow even a tax hike the region agrees on.
“I have reservations about [a 1-cent regional sales tax] just as a matter of fairness, but I also believe that the political will does not exist in Richmond in particular to enact such a tax or to allow the localities to enact such a tax,” Letourneau said.
“So we began to work on alternative proposals that would better utilize the funding that we’re already providing to Metro, and we believe we’ve come up with a proposal that is viable.”
“There does need to be a political awareness of what the realities are for funding Metro. A lot of what we’re talking about are not the issues that members of the General Assembly are talking about, even when they relate to Metro — the concerns remain about the operating costs, the concerns remain about some of the provisions in the collective bargaining agreement,” Letourneau added.
“All those issues need to be addressed before we can get to a discussion of how to put more money into Metro.”
The Metro Strategy Group is due to meet again in August and early September, with a final report by mid-September that Bulova said could be coordinated with the broader review by former U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
Other Fairfax County supervisors expressed concerns about whether changes would really happen this time.
Penny Gross, a Democrat, called a discussion about governance changes for Metro “déjà vu”.
The Northern Virginia Transportation Commission is backing a major change for the Metro Board that would see it go from eight voting members and eight alternates today to 12 voting members with three each from Maryland, Virginia, D.C. and the federal government. Supervisor John Cook, a Republican leading the NVTC review, said two of the three Virginia appointees would be local elected leaders who would take more direct guidance from the commission than Virginia’s Metro Board members do today.
Cook, Letourneau, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson and Maryland legislators met last week in search of common ground.
Cook said there was progress. Members of Congress also have a series of proposals that are separate from those of a number of local government and business groups.
Republican Supervisor Pat Herrity said the reforms need to be part and parcel of any funding suggestions.
“I’d support a little additional revenue for WMATA because it’s critical, but I’m not going to do it unless we see the reforms,” Pat Herrity said.
LaHood’s report in September is expected to fold the various recommendations together.
“There’s some really arcane, stupid stuff going on that just absolutely needs to get fixed before I think Virginia’s General Assembly is going to look at putting another dollar in,” Herrity said.