Commentary: Finding Funding for Mass Transit

Commentary: Finding Funding for Mass Transit

Improving mass transit around Virginia is one of the General Assembly’s top priorities for 2018. The most important transportation bill this year would create a dedicated source of revenue for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), better known as Metro. Senate Minority Leader Dick Saslaw (D-Fairfax) is the patron of this legislation.

On Feb. 13, the Senate of Virginia passed SB856 25 to 15. It is now in the House Committee on Appropriations, where I sit, and will champion this measure. This bill would provide Virginia’s share of funding to WMATA necessary to address the system's repair needs from a mix of dedicated state, regional, and local sources. Additional WMATA reforms and funding for the Virginia Railway Express are also incorporated in the bill.

I opposed the House version of this bill, HB1539, from Delegate Hugo (R-Clifton), because it left WMATA underfunded by a third, and did not include the budget for necessary capital improvements. It also included unnecessary and harmful anti-worker language that would have made it more difficult for hard-working Virginians to get ahead. I strongly support the Senate version.

Northern Virginia would suffer severely without a mass transit option. Thousands of Metro employees would lose their jobs and all those passengers would be back on our roads, leading to even worse gridlock. VDOT projects 56,500 more lane miles of congestion would occur on just the major roadways. Other studies suggest there could be an 80 percent decrease in jobs that are accessible now by mass transit for Northern Virginians.

Public transportation is critical to Virginia's congestion mitigation, economic development, environmental stewardship, and connectivity to jobs, medical services, and educational opportunities. We must not allow our transit infrastructure to deteriorate — our economic future is riding on Metro.

With only four weeks left during this General Assembly session, it is imperative that we pass good legislation to fund the improvement of mass transit. I hope SB856 will pass the House, as it would replace the proposed half-billion in new debt authorization, with approximately $20 million in new funding to mass transit.

Metro would receive $30 million of existing state funding currently allocated to other transportation projects, without affecting the status of those projects. Currently, the Northern Virginia Transportation District Bonds debt service receives about $20 million from existing state recordation tax revenues. The Rail Enhancement Fund receives about $10 million per year.

WMATA would receive $154 million in annual capital funding to address the state of repair needs. The General Assembly would require WMATA to limit year-over-year operating expense growth to 3 percent. This bill also authorizes the Commonwealth Transportation Board to withhold up to 20 percent of WMATA allocations in years where the rate is smaller than the growth.

WMATA must also create and adopt a strategic plan and a six-year capital improvement program if this bill were to pass. The Commonwealth could withhold up to 20 percent of the funds dedicated to WMATA in the event of non-compliance.

Use of Metrorail and the VRE generates about $600 million each year in sales and income tax revenues, which is about equal to Virginia’s general fund expenditures on state-colleges and state police. For every dollar that is invested into Metrorail and VRE, Virginia receives $2.50.

While Virginia has historically underfunded mass transit, SB856 would implement critical infrastructure projects and increase funding to alleviate the existing maintenance problems. Virginians rely on mass transit, and we must ensure they have a safe, affordable way to commute to and from work everyday.