LaHood to DC Metro Board: “You’re Fired!”

Washington DC’s Metro system has a multibillion-dollar maintenance backlog, declining ridership, and serious problems with labor unions. The systems problems are so bad that Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe asked former Secretary of Immobility Ray LaHood, one of the least credible people ever to hold that office, to lead a search for new funds for the agency.

Now LaHood has come out with his proposal. Has he found a billion dollars stuck in the seat cushions of Metro trains? Nope. Has he discovered a treasure map at the White House that leads to a city of gold? Nope. Has he found any money at all? None.

Instead, he proposes to replace Metro’s current sixteen-member board of directors with a “reform board” consisting of “five members who are solely responsible to the transit system, not the parochial interests of the local officials who would appoint them.”

The current eight members represent the federal government, state governments, county governments, and the DC city government–in other words, all of the major contributors to Metro’s budget. Because, after all, a sure way to get more money from someone is to strip them of any authority over how that money is spent. What a grand idea!

Of course, someone will still have to select the board members. Under LaHood’s proposal, that would be the president, governors of Maryland and Virginia, and mayor of Washington. In other words, the same people who appoint the current board except that the cities and counties are cut out of any say. Not counting Washington DC, those cities and counties currently contribute more than $530 million a year to Metro’s budget. (DC is another $312 million while the states themselves contribute very little to Metro.)

Metro general manager Paul Wiedefeld has set a target of increasing local funding to Metro by $500 million a year, preferably through a sales tax. One danger is that, if the sales tax raises $500 million, the cities and counties that now give the agency $500 million might suddenly discover they have a better use for some of that money. Keeping them on the board of directors and thereby giving them a say in how that money is spent might be a good way to keep them from cutting Metro’s funding.

Not surprisingly, DC’s mayor and Maryland’s & Virginia’s governors have no problem with the proposal since they would end up with most of the power but none of the funding responsibility. But not everyone is happy with the idea.

“The fact that it is Virginia’s suburban compact members and not the state government in Richmond who pay Metro subsidies has been dismissed in Secretary LaHood’s report,” says Virginia Representative Gary Connelly. “No one should dictate to them who should represent them on the Metro board.”

Current board chair Jack Evans, who represents DC, says that there are too many members on the board and it tends to suffer “parochial jealousies.” In fact, there are really only eight on the board–the others are “alternates.” Besides, you can have a board of any size and deal with the size problem through committees.

Changing the board, Evans warns, is “not a solution to Metro’s problems.” Instead, he says, “The solution to Metro’s problems is more money.”

More money can be a solution to almost any agency’s problems. But it is not the only solution. Another solution is lower costs. Metro could dramatically reduce its costs, for example, by replacing rails with buses. Buses could fan out and serve more neighborhoods and people than rail. But Evans, LaHood, and other people in charge of Metro are unwilling to consider that solution. As a result, Metro will always be short of money and will always have a deadly maintenance backlog.

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