Among the thornier transportation problems the General Assembly will tackle this session is finding more money for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.
The bus and rail system, which is struggling with falling ridership and billions in deferred maintenance costs, is working to fix management and operational lapses that have contributed to high-profile derailments and fires.
WMATA General Manager and CEO Paul Wiedefeld told a House of Delegates subcommittee Monday that the system will need at least $15.5 billion in capital spending over the next decade.
“We cannot move backward on the safety of the system,” Wiedefeld told the House Appropriations Committee’s Transportation Subcommittee.
Wiedefeld, who has led Metro since late 2015, added that a functional transit system in the Washington area, in addition to playing a major role in Northern Virginia’s economic development, is crucial to the state’s efforts to lure big corporate investment such as the bid for Amazon’s new headquarters.
“They want transit, and they want it to work well,” said Wiedefeld, who told the delegates that he has cut hundreds of positions, revised ethics and nepotism policies, and imposed controls on workers’ compensation and employee absenteeism in his efforts to right what has been seen as a woefully mismanaged transit system. WMATA also now has its first-ever preventive maintenance program, he said.
The system, which had to shut down in 2016 for an entire day for a systemwide safety inspection, also needs several hundred million dollars more each year from its member jurisdictions — Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia — as well as the federal government.
“This is a crisis situation,” said Del. Mark Sickles, D-Fairfax. “We can’t go forward limping along.”
Jennifer Mitchell, the state’s director of rail and public transportation, said WMATA’s funding woes coincide with a coming “cliff” in transit funding in Virginia. Unless bonds authorized over a decade ago and set to expire are replaced, state capital funding for transit will drop 44 percent by 2021.
Outgoing Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s budget provided an additional $150 million in annual dedicated funding to Metro, contingent on Washington and Maryland paying their share, by raising the gas tax floor in Northern Virginia as well as other taxes in the area.
Two pieces of legislation, House Bill 1319 by Del. Richard Sullivan Jr., D-Fairfax, and a companion bill by Sen. Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, go further, authorizing the sale of $550 million in bonds over five years; preserving funding for state public transit agencies, including WMATA, at current levels; and creating a prioritization process for projects.
Under the current scenario, Northern Virginia will bear most of the cost of putting WMATA on the path to fiscal sustainability, which will likely prove “the most controversial part,” Mitchell said, since about $600 million in tax revenue comes to the state from Metro and the Virginia Railway Express.
“We need to do this,” said David F. Snyder, a Falls Church City Council member and former mayor. “The future of Virginia literally rides on this legislation.”