Two days after thousands of Metro riders were stranded due to reports of smoke in a tunnel, the House Appropriations Committee voted to cut a third of Washington Metro Area Transit Authority funding.
In a 30-21 vote, the committee approved the Transportation-HUD spending bill Wednesday, granting WMATA $100 million in 2016 — two-thirds of the typical allotment. The bill originally cut funding in half, prompting a backlash from lawmakers in the District of Columbia and surrounding regions. The vote came after Metro riders on the Orange, Blue and Silver lines were left without train service Monday, after WMATA closed the lines due to an electrical malfunction. Later Monday evening, another report of smoke in a tunnel caused trains to operate on a single track.
House appropriators briefly touched on issues relating to WMATA safety and management as they debated an amendment offered by Rep. Scott Rigell, R-Va., to allocate an additional $25 million to the agency. (The funding bill originally allocated $75 million.)
“Even though I was very pleased that we got this through the committee, I’m still disappointed and quite frustrated that it wasn’t fully funded,” Rigell told CQ Roll Call. “So I was pleased that we got it through given the fiscal environment in which we are in right now.”
THUD Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., supported the Rigell amendment, but he also said, “It’s not like WMATA is this pristine agency that has no problems.” He called for oversight of the agency and strong leadership. WMATA is in the process of hiring a permanent general manager/chief executive officer.
But for lawmakers from the capital region, the recent incidents highlight the need for full funding, not less.
“The increase in arcing incidents may well come from the fact that the infrastructure is gradually crumbling,” Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va., said Tuesday, referring to the electrical malfunctions that have caused smoke in Metro tunnels. “The upgrades, the new investment, the renovation is critical, I think, for keeping Metro safe.”
The Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 authorized $1.5 billion for WMATA to be doled out over 10 years, amounting to $150 million per year. If the cut survives the appropriations process, it would be the first time lawmakers funded WMATA below the typical allocation.
On April 29, Beyer joined his fellow lawmakers from the capital region in issuing a statement drafted by Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, D-Va., urging appropriators to restore the funding. Rigell said he heard from his Northern Virginia colleagues over the past few days, which helped prompt him to offer the amendment, despite the fact that Metro does not traverse his district.
“I’m the only Virginian on Appropriations and I’m mindful of this,” Rigell said. “I have a responsibility to be as strong an advocate as I possibly can be for the commonwealth and that’s what this reflects.”
The delegation lost significant seniority on the spending panel after Reps. James P. Moran, D-Va., and Frank R. Wolf, R-Va., retired at the end of the 113th Congress. Currently, two Marylanders and one Virginian sit on the Appropriations Committee, none of whom are part of the immediate capital region delegation.
“Losing Frank Wolf and Jim Moran? No it doesn’t help at all. I’m sure if it were ever brought up in a quiet whisper in years past, they said be quiet right away,” Beyer said. “And we don’t have as much power as we had. But hopefully we still have enough vision to understand that you can’t cripple the nation’s Metro system.”
After the vote, Rep. Barbara Comstock, R-Va., issued a statement applauding Rigell’s efforts and endorsing a restoration of the full $150 million in funding. “I appreciate Congressman Rigell’s efforts in working with us to get more funding for Metro,” she said. “While Congressman Rigell’s amendment brings us closer to the $150 million benchmark, I will continue to work with my colleagues as this process moves along to make sure Congress meets its full $150 million obligation. … Metro needs these important funds for capital improvements that will address important safety concerns and help buy new Metro rail cars that will keep my constituents safe,” she added.
The Appropriations Committee rejected, along party lines, an attempt by THUD Appropriations ranking member David E. Price, D-N.C., to fully restore funding for WMATA and a number of other transportation projects. But lawmakers did agree to add language pertaining to WMATA management.
“The Committee does not make this recommendation lightly, and remains committed to assisting WMATA with its capital and safety needs,” read the amendment. “The Committee is looking to WMATA, [Federal Transit Administration], and the governments of Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia to demonstrate their commitment to the region’s transit system, [its] financial health and sound planning, and actions to address infrastructure and safety concerns.”
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