Opinion: Letter to the Editor: Withholding Funds Hurts WMATA

Opinion: Letter to the Editor: Withholding Funds Hurts WMATA

The following open letter was addressed to Secretary U.S. Department of Transportation.

Dear Secretary Chao,

As representatives of public transit customers in the Commonwealth of Virginia, we write to express our concerns regarding the Federal Transit Administration’s (FTA) Feb. 10, 2017 decision to withhold federal transit grant money in response to incomplete efforts to establish a new State Safety Oversight Program (SSOP) for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA).

On Feb. 8, 2016, the FTA gave notice that the Metropolitan Safety Commission (MSC), a new SSOP to succeed WMATA’s Tri-State Oversight Commission, must be in place and certified by the FTA on or before Feb. 9, 2017. On Feb. 10, 2017, with no new SSOP certified, the FTA announced it would exercise its authority to withhold five percent of federal funds authorized in fiscal year 2017 under the Urbanized Area Apportionments Program (49 U.S.C. 5307). The initial withholding equated to $8.9 million, and is expected to total $15 million if the withholding continues to the end of the current fiscal year. This withholding will not just impact funding for WMATA, but for broader infrastructure maintenance throughout Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, D.C.

The decision to withhold these federal funds has created significant uncertainty amongst state and local governments in terms of budget planning and stability. Should the withholding of funds continue throughout the remainder of the fiscal year, the governments and their transit systems will be faced with a number of difficult decisions about the manner in which they allocate their limited resources. Under a worst- case scenario, they would be forced to make cuts to good repair efforts or reduce service to their respective communities, either of which would be harmful to our constituents. We agree safety must be a top priority, but eliminating funding for infrastructure repair would directly contradict a SSOP’s stated goal.

Given the FTA must engage in this process with 29 other transit agencies nationwide by 2019, we appreciate the complexity of the issues that were considered in making the decision to withhold these funds. However, we must emphasize — as many of us have expressed previously either directly to you, your predecessor, or the FTA — that the timing of both the notice and the deadline set by FTA were arbitrary in that there seemed to be little or no consideration of the legislative calendars of the Virginia General Assembly or the General Assembly of Maryland.

The FTA timetable effectively gave Virginia and Maryland less than one full legislative session to negotiate amongst each other and the District, draft the proposal, navigate it through the respective lawmaking bodies, and sign it into law. The unreasonable requirements FTA put forth were not simply for the SSOP to have a legal foundation by the February 2017 deadline, but to have the program fully certified by FTA, which necessitates months of work after passing legislation, including, but not limited to, appointing commissioners, hiring staff, and leasing office space. We are therefore led to believe that FTA either set their requirements without providing fair consideration to the unique institutional challenges that exist within the jurisdictions, or the FTA set them with a deadline so unrealistic that failure was unavoidable.

Given the concerns we have raised in this letter regarding FTA’s shortsighted approach to this matter, and in light of the demonstrated progress which has been made, we respectfully request that your office work with the FTA to explore a compromise in which part of these withheld funds can be released as a show of good faith, as the jurisdictions continue their work to construct a stable SSOP.

Lending further justification for this request is the real progress that has been made with respect to organizing the MSC. At the time this is written:

• Virginia, Maryland, and the District (the jurisdictions) have each enacted legislation to enter into an interstate compact to form the MSC;

• The jurisdictions have submitted a detailed draft certification plan to FTA for review (though FTA has not yet provided formal feedback on the plan);

• Joint resolutions have been introduced in both the House of Representatives and the Senate to grant Congressional approval to the MSC compact;

• The Senate has passed its version of the joint resolution;

• The House Judiciary Committee, which has sole jurisdiction over the joint resolution, has ordered the House’s parallel version of the resolution to be reported favorably to the full House; and

• We are requesting that the measure be taken up for consideration as soon as possible.

We appreciate the FTA’s important safety work, especially its temporary safety oversight role with respect to WMATA. Without FTA’s diligence, more harm may have come to WMATA’s customers. But we must find an equitable solution to this matter.

We look forward to partnering with you, Madam Secretary, as well as the FTA to ensure safety remains the top priority in all transit systems and that reforms are made to accomplish a transit agency that provides safe, reliable service to our constituents. We appreciate your thoughtful consideration of this request.

U.S. Rep. Barbara Comstock, U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, U.S. Rep. Robert J. Wittman, U.S. Rep. Scott Taylor, U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, and U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner