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N. Va. officials search for path to save Metro from ‘catastrophic’ budget cuts

A train at the McLean Metro station platform (file photo)

Local and state officials in Virginia say the path to dig Metro out of its looming $750 million deficit is uncertain — but action is necessary to avoid the significant service cuts, systemwide fare hikes, layoffs and station closures laid out in the transit agency’s newly proposed budget.

Leaders in Fairfax County — which already faces lean economic times — say they don’t plan to offer up additional funds unless jurisdictional and federal partners can throw some more skin into the game.

“What we have said is there’s absolutely no way that local governments can bear the responsibility of that entire bill,” Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay told FFXnow in an interview before the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority released its official budget proposal.

WMATA has been sounding the alarm on its projected budget shortfall since June.

“What I think you’re going to see happen is there’s going to be some matching and some partnerships,” McKay said.

In a first glimpse of the proposed budget, which was released last Tuesday (Dec. 12), Metro General Manager Randy Clarke laid out what would happen if Metro can’t secure local, state and federal funds to address a problem that has been coalescing for years.

“Metro is facing an unprecedented, existential crisis that requires our region to rally together if we want to avoid the catastrophic impacts this budget would have on our region,” he said.

The system would close at 10 p.m. every day and shutter 10 low-ridership stations. Silver Line trains would turn back at Stadium-Armory, with trains running between Ashburn and that station. Similar reduced turn-backs would take place on the Red Line.

Trains would run every 15 minutes for most stations — a 17 to 67% increase in wait-times across the board on weekdays — and every 20 minutes on weekends for most stations — a 40 to 70% increase. Fares would also jump by 20%.

Among other cuts and more than 2,000 layoffs, Metro would use $193 million from its capital funds to cover operating maintenance expenses — essentially borrowing against the future.

“Such a large transfer of capital funds to operating expenses puts the system’s state of good repair, including safety and reliability, at risk, and threatens to delay, defer, decrease, or cancel several long-term projects to modernize the system,” WMATA cautioned in a press release.

But it’s unclear when and if local and state bodies will offer up enough funding. The subsidized system relies on annual subsidies from Maryland, Virginia and D.C., as well as fare revenue and federal dollars. The fiscal year 2025 budget begins July 1, 2024.

Metro needs subsidy increases of $180 million from Virginia, which has already allocated $348 million. Similar increases are sought from other jurisdictions. The upcoming General Assembly session will determine how much the state is willing to put down to assuage the bleeding after federal COVID-19 funding ends for the system.

Recent news that the Washington Capitals and Wizards plan to move near the new Potomac Yard Metro station in Alexandria emphasizes Metro’s “pivotal role” in the region, Hunter Mill District Supervisor Walter Alcorn says.

“Funding from Virginia will be critical in limiting the additional burden to be borne by local property taxpayers,” Alcorn said.

He also stated that a long-term solution that extends “beyond property taxes is critical to make Metro truly sustainable for Virginia residents and businesses.”

On the federal side, Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-11) said finding more funding for WMATA will be “very difficult,” particularly after the government provided $2.4 million in emergency Covid relief funding that staved off a major deficit for four years.

“We renewed the $150 million annual federal capital funding commitment to WMATA as part of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law,” Connolly said in a statement. “And the WMATA Board just removed its second Inspector General in two years the day after the Inspector General reported that WMATA was not in compliance with statutory conditions for federal funding — conditions I authored to address a culture at WMATA that resists accountability at every turn from the IG to the safety oversight commission.”

Still, he believes the federal government needs to step in more.

“It is long past time that the federal government pay its fair share to support the system’s operating costs, conditional of course on WMATA improving safety, reliability, and customer service,” he said.

Phyllis Randall, chair of the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority and the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors, noted that NVTA has pledged to invest $258 million in Metro’s capital improvements, signifying its commitment to support the system.

“Stakeholders must work together to secure sufficient state and federal funding and implement operational changes to ensure that Metro continues to meet the transportation and economic development needs of the region,” she said.

But McKay told FFXnow he still expects to see service cuts in the short term, even if state, federal and local entities can team up to at least limit the impact of the budget shortfall.

In the long term, he says the federal and state government need to pony up more funds to support Metro, noting that the federal funding is currently “a fixed-dollar amount” that doesn’t adjust with inflation.

“There are discussions underway about putting in place a longer-term fix to Metro that will probably require a lot of things, not the least of which is some reforms at Metro to improve management,” McKay said. “…I think the county has a role to play, but we’re not willing to play a role unless all of our funding partners are also making a commitment to do that.”

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