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Washington Transit System Needs $150 Million, Senators Say

Push by Democrats comes as troubled system tries to resolve safety problems

Democrats are rekindling a bitter spending fight with calls to keep level funding for Washington, D.C.'s transit system. (CQ Roll Call)
Democrats are rekindling a bitter spending fight with calls to keep level funding for Washington, D.C.'s transit system. (CQ Roll Call)

Senate Democrats announced a push Wednesday to keep federal funding at the same level as in years past for Washington, D.C.’s troubled transit system, rekindling an appropriations battle that reached a fever pitch in the fiscal 2016 season.  

The initiative by D.C.-area senators comes as Metro continues to struggle to resolve safety problems that have snarled commuters and led to a shutdown of the entire rail system earlier this month.  

Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland was joined by Virginia’s Mark Warner and Tim Kaine   in outlining a plea  for Senate appropriators to provide $150 million in federal money in fiscal 2017 for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, also known as Metro. The plea came in a letter from the Democrats written on March 18 that was made public Wednesday.  

That annual Metro contribution was spelled out in a 10-year authorization for the transit agency as part of a rail safety bill signed into law in 2008, which authorized $1.5 billion for the agency over a decade beginning in fiscal 2009. Congress has appropriated $150 million to the agency every year since 2009, according to congressional staff, but last year that funding came under threat amid budget uncertainty and a discretionary spending crunch.  

President Barack Obama requested $150 million for Metro in his budget request for fiscal 2017.  

New pressure for appropriators to maintain level funding for the agency occurs as the National Transportation Safety Board continues to probe a fatal smoke incident outside the L’Enfant Plaza Metro station in January 2015 that left one passenger dead.  

“This is a unique federal obligation related to the operations of the federal government, and is critical for Congress to continue its support of the transit system that directly serves the federal government throughout the Greater Washington Region,” the senators’ letter reads.  

Senate appropriators don’t appear to be pondering cuts to the transit provider, and showed concern for Metro during a budget hearing March 16, the same day the agency shut down its entire rail system for emergency inspections of its third-rail system in the interest of passenger safety. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland, the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, at the hearing implored Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx to help lawmakers identify what more could be done to help the agency.  

Foxx told the panel his department would work in the coming months to examine “hundreds of millions in unspent grants” at the agency and conduct new safety inspections in three critical areas: red light running, use of emergency brakes and track integrity.  

Lawmakers have reason to worry. Last year, House appropriators pondered cutting federal support in half, to $75 million, according to the Transportation-HUD Subcommittee’s draft legislation.  

By the time the bill was approved by the full House Appropriations Committee, the cut was reduced from $75 million to $50 million. But senators eventually restored full funding for the agency in a full appropriations markup , and that funding level was included in the fiscal 2016 omnibus spending bill.  

But Virginia Rep. Gerald E. Connolly ’s office pointed to language in a committee report that accompanies the fiscal 2017 House Republican budget resolution as evidence Republicans could be pondering reductions – the Virginia Democrat launched fierce criticism at last year’s Republican proposals to cut funding for the agency. The resolution report language touches on issues at the agency and suggests federal subsidies could be a contributor to problems.  

“The  budget  supports  legislative  reforms  that  require  Metro  to  contain  its  costs  and  operate  more  like  a  business,  rather  than  continue  rewarding  the  poorly  performing  system  with  subsidies  from  Federal  taxpayers,” the report reads. The House Budget Committee approved the resolution on March 23.  

Connolly said Wednesday that any funding slash for the Metro system would devastate commuters and ignore the vital role Metro serves for the federal government.  

“To renege on its commitment would cause a serious ripple effect throughout the region, jeopardizing the matching $150 million from Virginia, Maryland, and D.C. and threatening the progress needed to restore safety and confidence in Metro,” Connolly said in a statement.  

House appropriators don’t seem to be considering drastic cuts to Metro this year, and with the Senate’s top Democratic appropriator from a state served heavily by the transit system, it seems unlikely that cuts are ahead.  

“Fortunately, I have not heard rumblings to that effect this time, and I hope I won’t,” said Rep. David E. Price , top Democrat on the House Appropriations Transportation-HUD Subcommittee, when asked by CQ earlier in March about whether the panel was discussing potential cuts to Metro.  

Last year’s major cut came as appropriators were marking up spending bills to stringent 2011 Budget Control Act levels as outlined in the fiscal 2016 Republican budget resolution adopted by both the House and Senate. A two-year budget agreement reached last year allowed for an extra $30 billion in discretionary spending for fiscal 2017 divided evenly between defense and nondefense spending.  

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart , the Florida Republican who chairs the Transportation-HUD Subcommittee, in an interview with CQ Roll Call didn’t mention any decreases that might be proposed for Metro as the fiscal 2017 appropriations season heats up – but he emphasized his view that money isn’t the problem.  

“It’s not an issue of money. Not only have we fully funded them, there’s money that’s there that they have, that’s there’s for them to use, but they haven’t been able to tap into it because, again, a lot of issues that they have internally,” Diaz-Balart told CQ Roll Call on March 16. “They’ve had problems. The one thing that cannot be claimed, however, is lack of money. Frankly, it’s internal issues with WMATA.”  

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