The governor of Virginia has asked former Secretary of Immobility Ray LaHood to figure out how to fix the Washington Metro rail system. That’s a little like asking someone who blew up your house to figure out how to rebuild it.
LaHood is proud of the role he played in getting the Silver Line built. Yet that line caused many of the problems Metro is facing today, all of which were known when the decision was made to build it. Most important, long before LaHood was secretary, Metro knew it needed billions of dollars to rehabilitate its system. Instead of finding the money to do that, LaHood insisted they build a new rail line. In addition, because the Silver Line merges with the Blue Line, which was running at capacity, they had to reduce service on the Blue Line and may have lost more Blue Line riders than they gained on the Silver Line.
Now Metro is on the hunt for funds to reduce some of its $25 billion maintenance backlog. LaHood thinks he’s going to find a consensus for how to do that, but the one thing everyone agrees on is that someone else should pay for it. With Republicans in control of Congress and fiscal conservatives in control of the Republican Party, the federal government isn’t going to pay for it, but neither Maryland nor Virginia want to pay for it either.
One solution is to not finish the Silver Line in Virginia and not build the Purple Line in Maryland and use the money that would have been spent on those lines to help rehabilitate the Metro system. But the governors of both Maryland and Virginia are committed to building more rail lines that the region can’t afford to maintain.
So the question has to be asked: why put the person who made the wrong decision before in charge of making hard decisions today? It’s not like LaHood really understands transportation. In a recent interview, he said, “If you’re not into autonomous cars, you’re not in the game.” If he understands that, why doesn’t he understand that autonomous cars are going to replace transit in a few years so spending $15 billion to $25 billion to rebuild a rail transit system is a complete waste of money?
Instead, what LaHood understands is raising taxes. Though a Republican, LaHood was one of two Republican candidates for Congress in 1974 who refused to sign Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America because he disagreed with Gingrich’s plan to cut taxes. He will no doubt come up with recommendations to raise taxes in Virginia (and, by extension, Maryland) to rebuild Metro.
In fact, the most sensible plan is to phase out Metro rail and replace it with buses. But LaHood has never seen a rail project, no matter how expensive, that he didn’t consider worth funding, so he isn’t likely to reach that conclusion.