Tuesday, Feb. 13 marked “Crossover” in the Virginia General Assembly, the point at which all Senate and House bills must be considered by the body in which they originated. During a six-hour marathon floor session, the Senate passed legislation that would provide critical funding for our Metro system.
First opened in 1976, Metro today has 91 stations and 117 miles of track. This essential resource provides enhanced mobility, traffic congestion relief, and improved air quality, serving as a lynchpin for regional economic development for the entire National Capital Region.
In Virginia, Metro’s presence is estimated to generate more than $600 million per year in sales and income tax revenues that benefit the entire Commonwealth. Without Metro, Virginians would be subjected to 56,500 more lane miles of traffic congestion on arterial roadways and an 80 percent decrease in transit-accessible jobs. Together with the Virginia Railway Express (VRE), Metro moves more than 290,000 people on an average weekday. Now, more than 40 years after its first trains went into operation, Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) customers are experiencing the effects of an aging system compounded by years of deferred maintenance.
The 30th District is home to seven Metro stations along the yellow and blue lines from Huntington to Pentagon City. As a member of the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission (NVTC) and a former commissioner of the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority (NVTA), I have long supported transit and understand the important connection between the Virginia General Assembly and Metro. Eight years ago, I passed legislation to secure a commitment of $50 million per year in Virginia state funds for Metro matched by Maryland and the District of Columbia. That $150 million was in turn matched by the federal government — yielding $3 billion over 10 years. However, this vital funding runs out in 2019. Members of our Congressional delegation have introduced legislation to continue this important federal match.
Following a 12-month restoration effort, during which WMATA replaced more than 50,000 railroad ties, fasteners, and insulators, in an effort to make rides smoother, safer and quieter, then-Governor Terry McAuliffe, working with former U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and NVTC, initiated a detailed review of Metro. Secretary LaHood recommended that the region come together to create dedicated funding, institute cost control measures, address repair backlogs, and institute structural improvements to the WMATA board and governance structure.
WMATA’s general manager, Paul Wiedefeld, has made great strides in addressing major repairs and building upon recent improvements to reliability, safety, and reduced operating costs through his “Back2Good” Initiative. Mr. Wiedefeld also identified $25 billion in unfunded capital needs required for the system to remain safe and reliable. Dedicated funding of $500 million per year, shared between Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia, will allow WMATA to meet these needs and restore the system to a much-improved and reliable operation.
Recognizing the importance of Metro and the urgency of the moment, the General Assembly has embarked on the difficult task of establishing a dedicated $154 million funding source — Virginia’s share of the $500 million required to right the ship. While Maryland uses state funds to fulfill their obligation, the Virginia Senate proposal allocates just $30 million in state funding, with the majority of the additional funding on Virginia’s side coming from regional taxes imposed on transactions occurring within the Metro jurisdictions of Alexandria, Arlington, Fairfax, Falls Church and Loudoun. The pressures of rising populations, increased demands on schools, and the need to make major infrastructure improvements leads to cities and counties having little choice but to disproportionately rely on property taxes to generate additional revenue. Localities have extremely limited taxing authority because of the “Dillon Rule” that requires jurisdictions to seek explicit approval from the General Assembly before they are permitted to enact most taxes and ordinances.
As this issue has come to a head, key players have been brought to the table. I co-sponsored SB856, introduced by Sen. Dick Saslaw (D-Fairfax), which would augment the current funding mix beyond local property taxes. The bill accomplishes this by instituting a regional gas tax floor, re-allocating a portion of Northern Virginia’s existing regional transportation funding directly to Metro, redirecting $30 million in state transit funding, increasing the real estate transaction tax (Grantor’s tax), and raising the region’s hotel tax (Transient Occupancy Tax). The legislation also calls for ongoing attention to operational costs and reforms to the Metro board. I served as an active member of NVTC’s Governance Committee that spent a number of meetings reviewing WMATA’s board and its processes.
A contrasting bill (HB1539) emerged in the House of Delegates, introduced by Del. Tim Hugo (R-Fairfax). The legislation includes similar reform provisions to the Senate bill, but provides just $105 million in funding. The bill would also take more revenues directly from the existing Northern Virginia’s regional transportation fund administered by the NVTA, threatening the financial stability and creditworthiness of our regional funding program and reducing the availability of funds for other Northern Virginia improvements. Del. Rip Sullivan (D-Fairfax) introduced a proposal that mirrored the Senate approach, however the House adopted Delegate Hugo’s bill instead, setting the state for intense negotiations to come. It is my hope that the final legislation that emerges from the General Assembly reflects the Senate language and we arrive at a sustainable solution for our vital transit infrastructure.
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It is my continued honor to serve the people of the 30th District.