Area jurisdictions squabble over Washington Metro shortfall

Maryland to defer payment of $28 million in capital funding

April 10, 2010|By Ann Scott Tyson | The Washington Post

The Washington Metro's budget shortfall has fueled some squabbling between local jurisdictions struggling to fund the transit agency.

Maryland recently decided to defer payment for two years of $28 million in capital funding to Metro due in fiscal year 2010. That generated complaints from Metro board member Jim Graham of the District of Columbia, who has pushed to use some capital funds to fill a projected $189 million gap in the Metro operating budget for 2011.

At the same time, Maryland's action signals that it is less likely to be able to provide its share of an additional $74 million that the system needs to ease its operating shortfall and prevent proposed service cuts. Maryland, the District of Columbia and Northern Virginia jurisdictions must all agree to provide a proportional share of the additional funds for such an increase to take place.

"I am skeptical that Maryland will come up with anything," given the deferral of the $28 million, said Graham, who is also a member of Washington's City Council. "If one [jurisdiction] doesn't agree, then no one can do it."

Maryland informed Metro of the deferral in a letter Jan. 28, but Metro did not inform the board until March 30, a delay that concerned Graham and other board members. "The board should have been told," he said.

Maryland Transportation Secretary Beverley K. Swaim-Staley defended the deferral, saying that Metro was behind schedule in spending the capital dollars and that it did not need the funds now.

"Given they are not ready to spend the money, we don't see the need to take the money out of the trust fund," she said. "If they needed the funding or advanced their capital schedule, we would make sure the money is provided."

She added that Maryland plans to provide $367 million to the system as the state's share of the 2010 to 2015 capital program known as Metro Matters.

The economic downturn has caused revenues in Maryland's Transportation Trust Fund to decline 13 percent since 2007, requiring the state Transportation Department to cut more than $2 billion in projects, Swaim-Staley said.

Nevertheless, she said Maryland's 2011 budget includes a 3 percent increase for Metro compared with 2010, although this does not include the $30 million in additional funding sought as Maryland's portion of the $74 million needed to prevent service cuts.

Asked whether Maryland intended to provide that extra funding, Swaim-Staley said it is "too early to tell" and will depend on public hearings and Metro's budget deliberations this month.

In Virginia, jurisdictions have voted to set property tax rates at a level that would enable them to provide Metro with their portion of the $74 million, said Christopher Zimmerman, a Metro board member from Arlington County.

"Arlington, Fairfax and Alexandria are all in the position to take care of the need," he said, "so if Maryland and D.C. step up, Virginia will do its share."

Zimmerman, a Democrat, said it would be irresponsible for the jurisdictions not to supply the money to prevent service cuts, which he said would prove counterproductive and cost the region vital revenue.

"An awful lot of tax revenue generation in this region is dependent upon transit," he said. "It would be fiscally foolish to not find that comparatively small amount of money."

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