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Should Congress Take Over D.C.’s Failing Metro System?

by Countable | 11.2.16

Washington D.C.’s 40-year-old Metro transit system is kind of falling apart. It faces a potentially dangerous need for upgrades, a nearly-$3 billion unfunded pension liability and an estimated $290 million deficit in the next fiscal year, the Washington Post reports.

That’s why on Wednesday, Metro Board Chairman Jack Evans proposed a radical new solution: Have the federal government take it over.

How is this our problem?

Evans argued in the Post that D.C. can’t afford to fix Metro’s myriad problems and political fights on the board have prevented them from being able to fire employees and fix the transit system’s budget so that they can afford needed repairs.

The D.C. Metro is the second-busiest transit system in the country, after the subway in New York City, according to a 2008 study. And hundreds of thousands of federal employees and contractors use the D.C. metro system every day, according to the Post, not to mention tourists visiting the nation’s capital.

D.C. Metro, which is currently run by the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority (WMATA), has already spent much of this year operating on what it calls a "SafeTrack" schedule, which has meant early closings and major delays for travelers, in order to make the crumbling transit system operate more safety. But, according to the Post, “the District’s chief financial officer, Jeffrey S. DeWitt, estimates that Metro needs between $12 billion and $18 billion of additional capital funds over the next 10 years to pay for the system’s maintenance and upgrades.”

Evans wants the federal government to pay for some of that, help cover WMATA’s deficits and also to take over "Metro’s unfunded pension [promised pensions for workers that the District no longer has the funds to pay for] liability of $2.8 billion," according to the Post.

Additionally, Evans pointed out that a whopping 70 percent of WMATA’s current budget goes to personnel. He believes that if the federal government took over, they could more easily fire some of Metro’s 13,000 employees and help to lower personnel costs, including benefits.

How would this work?

Evans is proposing that Congress approve a federal control board to take over the Metro rail system, which would consist of five presidential appointees. The Washington Post’s editorial board initially floated this idea in a controversial editorial this morning.

Congress could do that in a few different ways, the Post’s editorial board wrote. "It cited Congress’s constitutional authority over the District, its power to regulate interstate commerce and its responsibility for homeland security." Congress could also follow the path they took back in 1995 to help D.C. recover from mounds of debt, when it created a similar five-member federal control board, which had supreme power over the District’s budget.

It may not be such a popular idea…

It’s unlikely that Congress will want to take over the metro,"especially if it cost U.S. taxpayers’ money,” according to the Post. But if it’s the only way to fix the system that gets federal employees to work and to cut costs, perhaps they could be convinced. Congress could also use the takeover to "eliminate the existing system of binding arbitration of labor contracts, which effectively means that pay and benefits rise with each round of negotiations. That could be a selling point for Republican lawmakers, who have objected to binding arbitration at Metro.”

Asked who supports the idea, besides him and The Post’s editorial page, [Evans] said: "Probably nobody. The region is resistant to change of any kind. Nobody wants to change anything, even as the house is burning down."

— Sarah Mimms
Photo by Elvert Barnes/Flickr

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