Virginia approves historic Metro funding — with painful cuts to other transportation

On Saturday, Virginia approved $154 million in new annual dedicated funding for WMATA, paving the way for similar long-term financial commitments from DC and Maryland that could strengthen the embattled system, which needs repairs and upgrades.

Local transit advocates in Virginia and elsewhere in the region are happy about the breakthrough in funding, which the system has lacked since it opened in 1976. However, much of the money is being pulled from the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority — including funds that Arlington, Alexandria, and Fairfax had slated for transit, roads, and pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure improvements.

Virginia’s funding comes with the condition that Maryland and DC also contribute “proportional amounts” in terms of population and ridership (under today’s WMATA jurisdictional funding formula) to provide Metro with up to $500 million. The Maryland House of Delegates has passed its own Metro agreement last week (HB 372), but for $150 million rather than the $167 million.

Maryland’s bill also comes with a condition that Virginia and DC provide at least $150 million per year. DC is expected to approve its share of $179 million, though council chairman Phil Mendelson has said he thinks DC paying more than Maryland and Virginia is unfair.

Virginia had long been seen as the biggest obstacle to securing a deal because its legislature is run by Republicans who have been skeptical about increasing taxes or supporting transit. However, thanks to efforts from local activists over the years, pressure from the state’s business community such as the Chamber of Commerce, and the potential for Amazon’s second headquarters to locate in the area, hesitant Republican leaders stuck a compromise to fund Metro. They’ll do so primarily by redirecting existing transportation money from other uses, rather than by raising new money.

Van Dorn station in Virginia. Image by m01229 licensed under Creative Commons.

Transit advocates, environmentalists, and members of the business community alike have lauded the progress Virginia made on Saturday.

“Metro is a vital component of Greater Washington’s transportation infrastructure and its viability directly impacts our region’s ability to compete for companies like Amazon, as well as attract and retain our talented workforce and other private sector industries that will drive our regional economy in the future,” said the MetroNow coalition, which includes the Coalition for Smarter Growth, business groups, and others. “Virginia has stepped up and shown great leadership by securing $154 million in annual, dedicated funding for Metro, and we strongly urge Maryland and the District to meet their commitments of $167 million and $179 million, respectively."

Virginia’s contribution draws funds away from other transportation projects

Much of Virginia’s contribution comes from redirecting funds from roads, transit, and other transportation projects in Northern Virginia.

About $100 million of the $154 million for WMATA will come from local jurisdictions and the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority (NVTA). The state originally created NVTA years ago so Northern Virginia could raise regional taxes to build its own transportation projects, above and beyond what Virginia’s Republican-controlled legislature was willing to do statewide or through VDOT.

NVTA has about $450 million per year, split into two pots: 70 percent (a little over $300 million a year) is for large regional highway and transit projects, and 30 percent (about $135 million) goes directly to jurisdictions for smaller, more local projects — often sidewalks, bikeways, and local streets. Here is a list of regional projects currently under consideration for funding by NVTA over the next six years via that 70 percent regional pot of money, and here is the list of what jurisdictions have built with the 30 percent local money over the past few years.

This new deal cuts $75 million directly out of NVTA’s funding, taking some from each of the two pots. Jurisdictions have to come up with another $27 million, and many will have to dip into what’s left of their 30 percent funds in order to do that. As a result, many of the projects Northern Virginia jurisdictions were planning will have to be cut or scaled back.

Most of the projects in Arlington and Alexandria are transit projects, such as the Potomac Yard Metro station, a new entrance at Ballston station, and busways in Pentagon City and Alexandria’s West End, or bike projects like bike lanes and Capital Bikeshare. In Fairfax City and Falls Church, there’s a mix of roads and transit.

A train speeds through Arlington. Image by Erinn Shirley used with permission.

In Fairfax County, most of the regional projects are road widenings, but they’re currently using NVTA money to build the Silver Line’s Innovation station, and $18 million of their local pot goes to running the Fairfax Connector bus system. Prince William is similar, with some local money going to VRE and commuter bus operator PRTC.

Loudoun County is already spending almost all its NVTA money on roads and more roads, with a portion also going to even more roads, sometimes with sidewalks as well. Most of the jurisdictions, including Loudoun, also use NVTA money to buy buses, supporting Metrobus and all the smaller bus networks.

NVTA will now have to decide how to slim down its project list, and each county or city will take a proportional hit. Due to provisions in the bill that put a heavier burden on jurisdictions that are more reliant on Metro, Arlington and Alexandria take a proportionally larger hit than Fairfax or Loudoun, with Prince William taking the smallest.

This will likely mean fewer road widenings in Loudoun, but also fewer Metro station expansions, less funding for Fairfax Connector, ART, and DASH, and cuts to Arlington and Alexandria that will likely go to Capital Bikeshare, bikeways, and sidewalks (though exactly what is getting cut is yet to be determined).

Here’s what’s going to happen now for Metro in the legislatures

Virginia’s legislation now goes to Democratic Governor Ralph Northam for his signature. Northam said Monday that he would rather not fund Metro by diverting funds from other transportation projects in the state, and would like to find other sources of revenue for Virginia’s $154 million.

Northam did not spell out where exactly he would find the money, but the General Assembly will take up whatever amendment he proposes at a one-day special session in April. Northam is expected to call the session soon to finalize the two-year budget that Virginia lawmakers failed to agree on during the regular session.

There is a similar resolution happening now within Maryland’s General Assembly, which is in session until April 9. The House of Delegates passed HB 372 on a strongly bipartisan 98-40 vote, providing $150 million, which is short $17 million of its “full” share under Metro’s current proportional funding formula. Advocates are pushing for Maryland to get to its full $167 million before Maryland’s legislative crossover on March 19.

The DC Council doesn’t have a set session like Maryland and Virginia do, so it can approve its bill after the other two. Council chairman Phil Mendelson and WMATA board chairman (and Ward 2 councilmember) Jack Evans both said at a recent hearing that they see the current formula as unfair to DC by making the District pay more.

Mendelson said in August, “[Metro] uses a complicated formula that includes ridership and station count, but not track miles. It was a political compromise 40 years ago when the region’s sprawl looked very different and the rail system was envisioned to be 98 miles. The District pays 37.2 percent, Maryland pays 34.8 percent, and Northern Virginia jurisdictions pay 28 percent.” He noted that with the opening of the Silver Line, Virginia has much more track mileage but the formula does not account for this.

Still, the council is expected to go along with a deal if Annapolis and Richmond are able to get on the same page. And then, WMATA might have a dedicated funding source for the first time in the system’s 42-year history.

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