Public transportation

Will More Federal Spending Fix D.C.'s Metro System?

Rep. Barbara Comstock Metro reform bill offers good ideas but comes at a hefty price.


Metro stop
Kathryn Aegis/Dreamstime

Rep. Barbara Comstock (R–Va.) on Monday unveiled the "METRO Accountability and Reform Act," intended to set the troubled Washington Metro Area Transportation Authority (WMATA) system right.

Her bill includes several sweeping, positive reforms to WMATA's governing structure and labor relations.

And a request for a $75 million annual boost in federal subsidies. Currently, WMATA receives $150 million in annual appropriations from federal tax payers, which helps supplement it's $2.6 billion operating budget. Comstock's bill would raise that yearly subsidy to $225 million.

The money is essentially being offered as a bribe in order to get stakeholders to go along with the more controversial changes in the bill, and to forestall some sort of Metro-wide sales tax—an idea loathed by many.

"Years of deferred maintenance, increasing budget deficits and decreasing ridership on Metro threatens the safety and reliability of the system," said Comstock in a press release. "Without significant reforms, the system will continue to decline and lose ridership and fail the nation's capital."

It's no secret that the Washington D.C Metrorail system is falling apart.

Fiscal Year 2016 saw ridership decline by 12 percent, the system's budget deficit balloon to $125 million, and unfunded pension and health care liabilities sit stubbornly at almost $3 billion. And the trains sometime catch on fire.

Comstock's bill would cap Metro's annual spending at current levels for the next five fiscal years.

New Metro employees would be shifted from traditional defined-benefit pension plans to defined contribution 401(k) plans, a change endorsed by WMATA's General Manager Paul Wiedefeld. The bill would also encourage WMATA to contract out more of its services to private providers, and limit overtime expenditures on its current army of union employees.

These changes have naturally drawn criticism from Metro's labor unions and their Democratic allies. "What looks like reform in one mind can be perceived as deliberate union-busting and anti-labor to another person's view," Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) told the Washington Post.

No less controversial is Comstock's proposal to replace the current 16-member board of directors with a 5-member Metro Reform Board. This board would have sweeping powers to unilaterally amend, renegotiate, or void all current and pending union and supplier contracts.

The reform board would also have the power to renegotiate current liabilities, which could mean more sweeping pension and employee benefit changes. The reform board would operate until Maryland, Virginia, and D.C. can decide on a new, permanent governing charter for WMATA.

These reforms are sensible responses to a Metro system incapable of responding to the massive challenges it faces. Comstock's is aiming in the right direction trying to rein in current and future liabilities and impose some measure of fiscal discipline on WMATA.

But they sidestep the underlying issue that mass transit, and particularly light rail, is a transportation solution that has long outlived its usefulness. Steep declines in ridership show that commuters are increasingly looking for transportation alternatives. Ride-hailing services like Uber, Lyft, and Via, along with lower gas prices are spurring this shift away from transit, and fast-approaching driverless cars will make it complete.

Federal officials should be trying to make this transition a smoother process, instead of pouring in more taxpayer dollars to keep the system hobbling along for a few more years.