For Virginia politicians, the Metro bus-and-subway network that connects Washington and its Maryland and Northern Virginia suburbs has always been an expensive pain in the pocketbook.
It’s one they ignore at their own peril. Or so they tell themselves.
With ridership down about 12 percent — a consequence of, among other things, cheap gasoline and ride-services — Metro, already burdened by financial and operational difficulties, may be more an 80-pound weakling these days than an 800-pound gorilla.
That’s not stopping Northern Virginia legislators and the business leaders who bankroll them from demanding more state funds for Metro, which was a five-letter, four-letter word to the downstate politicians who controlled Virginia’s cash levers during the transit system’s infancy in the 1970s and 1980s.
In 1976, a Northern Virginia senator, Abe Brault, turned to the Virginia Supreme Court in an unsuccessful challenge to the veto of a $10 million appropriation for Metro by Gov. Mills Godwin, a native of the rural Southside who once intoned that there was an unbridgeable gap between NoVa — Northern Virginia — and RoVa — the Rest of Virginia.
Douglas Fugate, Virginia’s transportation commissioner from 1964 until 1976, had little regard for Metro, viewing it as a hindrance to an extension of Interstate 66 through Fairfax and Arlington counties. The project infuriated proponents of public transportation in the Washington area.
In 1983, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ed Willey of Richmond resisted increased funding for Metro. Hospitalized during crucial budget negotiations, Willey couldn’t stop Brault from teaming with Senate Democratic Majority Leader Hunter Andrews of Hampton, the stand-in as chairman, to double Metro’s appropriation.
The latest cash infusion for Metro — $154 million a year — would have been generated, in part, by modest increases in the hotel-motel tax and the levy on real estate deals.
They were pushed by Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat who swept deep-blue Northern Virginia. They were casualties of pushback by the last Republican in the Fairfax County legislative delegation, Tim Hugo.
Hugo, who also is chairman of the House of Delegates Republican Caucus, said that he is for another handout for Metro. He said he is against paying for it with higher taxes. Hugo is consistent, having opposed Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell’s promise-breaking tax increase for roads and rail in 2013 that would have failed if not for the General Assembly’s Democratic minority.
The deeply depleted House Republican majority, pruned in November from 66 to 51 by the anti-Trump tsunami, sided this past Wednesday with Hugo, dealing a blow not just to Metro but, perhaps, other transportation projects across Northern Virginia from which dollars now might have to be diverted to the transit system.
For a guy nearly voted out in 2017 from the House seat that he has held since 2003, Hugo, who did not return a telephone call seeking comment Friday, has outsize influence in Richmond.
Before gutting the Metro bill with a little help from his friends, including House Speaker Kirk Cox of Colonial Heights, Hugo singlehandedly upended the protocols under which Fairfax lawmakers — in both parties — have selected judges for nearly 40 years.
The custom, largely attributed to the late Sen. Joe Gartlan, D-Fairfax, a lawyer-legislator, had been for Democrats and Republicans to agree on candidates for the county’s courts even though the election of judges is entirely the prerogative of the General Assembly’s majority party.
These days, that’s the GOP — albeit barely.
Fairfax sends 26 delegates and senators to Richmond, of whom 25 are Democrats. They are keen on two candidates for the juvenile and domestic relations court, including an Asian-American woman. Neither has been seated. That’s because Hugo, a Washington lobbyist in his day job, said he doesn’t like the selection process.
Hugo’s success in stripping new taxes from the Metro funding bill has the business class seething; Fairfax Democrats, too. As the head of the county Board of Supervisors, Sharon Bulova, told The Washington Post, “Looks like Delegate Tim Hugo sold us down the river. Partisan politics over sound public policy.”
Hugo’s ploy, paired with his opposition to Medicaid expansion and push for a generous property tax break for two country clubs, likely means he will be an even bigger target in next year’s election to decide the narrowly divided House. Hugo survived a strong challenge from Democrat Donte Tanner by 99 votes.
The slender margin is viewed not only as a measure of hostility for Trump but demographic and cultural shifts in an affluent district, where 22 percent are foreign-born and 27 percent are Asian or Hispanic, census reports show.
Hugo’s 40th House District reaches from southwestern Fairfax County to upper Prince William County. Eighty percent of the district is in Fairfax and includes the pricier large-tract subdivisions that flank the Occoquan Reservoir. The district was reliably Republican through 2013, favoring Ken Cuccinelli, the conservative culture warrior, for governor.
But in 2016, the district fell to Democrat Hillary Clinton for president. The next year, Northam carried the district by 11 percentage points, generating a near-fatal downdraft for Hugo’s re-election campaign.
The district is not directly served by Metro, though residents say that commuters, 86 percent of whom travel by automobile, drive to stations in Vienna and Springfield, where they can board the subway. Virginia Railway Express, the commuter service, stops south of the 40th, in Manassas.
In Northern Virginia, Metro, whose problems have implications for the troubled Tide light-rail line in Norfolk and Richmond’s long-delayed Pulse high-speed bus, remains an important symbol of the region’s transformation from scattered suburb to edge city.
For developers, investment bankers, government contractors and big law firms that have clustered in Northern Virginia, Metro rail routes, in particular, are pathways to bigger paydays. The Silver Line that reaches toward Washington Dulles International Airport is proof that if you build it, they will come.
And “they” include younger, well-educated professionals who, as Hugo’s close call in November shows, increasingly vote Democratic.