Editorial: A Structure of Accountability

The statement was obvious and unsurprising, but the fact that it had to be uttered was evidence of the scale of the challenge facing Loudoun government leaders when it comes to paying bills that follow the Silver Line.

Yes, it is too late for the county to pull out of the Metrorail extension.

It has been for many years. The previous Board of Supervisors committed to helping the region pay the operational and capital costs associated with running one of the nation’s busiest transit systems.

Key to making that decision was the concept that those living closest to the rail line would be paying those costs through special tax districts. It was a doubling down on the bet that the Silver Line would fuel a long-term economic boon. The primary goal of the comprehensive planning work now underway in the corridor is to lay a fertile ground for that private investment while also promoting development that will offer new residents and workers a high quality of life.

That’s something supervisors have little control over. The deep fiscal hole of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority is a different matter.

The system has been ravaged by decades of leadership mismanagement and myopia. In part, those failures are rooted in the structure of the regional compact. It most often is described as a three-jurisdiction enterprise. Hardly. Virginia, Maryland, DC and the federal government appoint the board’s members. That’s four parties of interest. But it’s even more complex because operational costs are divided among DC, two Maryland counties, two (soon to be three) Virginia counties, and three Virginia cities. Each has a say in the operations but none has responsibility for them. The governance structure is set up to promote useless finger-pointing instead of demanding accountability.

Combined with the lack of a dedicated funding source, that structural dysfunction will continue to hamper efforts to right the ship. As local rail critics have long pointed out, Loudoun can’t afford to wallow in that quagmire.

With energetic new leadership at the helm and taking a more realistic view of the challenges facing the system now is to look beyond the short-term. It is not just more money and rail car upgrades that were needed. Now is time for regional and state leaders to restructure the whole operation.

There is a reason WMATA’s 11-government compact is unique in the nation: it isn’t likely to work well.

It hasn’t for quite some time.

2 thoughts on “Editorial: A Structure of Accountability

  • 2017-02-09 at 5:48 pm
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    And this just in from today:

    “…Metro could have to institute other cuts to address a potential budget shortfall largely tied to significantly declining ridership. “Clearly, because of our declining ridership, we will have some fiscal pressures on the ’17 budget, the budget we’re in now,” Metro Board Chairman Jack Evans said. As chair of the D.C. Council Finance Committee, Evans said that while local jurisdictions are not yet being called on to contribute more to cover a budget gap for the fiscal year ending in July, the District could if it needed to. Maryland and Virginia would pay a share too, in that case…”

    Death spiral.

  • 2017-02-09 at 12:10 pm
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    WMATA needs to go into bankruptcy, shed debt, restructure labor contracts, and restructure its organization. Tax districts should be placed around the entire line in order to fund the Beast.

    That is really the only option. It is too far gone to save and, even if you did, the dysfunction remains.

    The BoS should at least feign to want to pull out to give them bargaining power (apparently they haven’t caught on to that negotiating tactic yet despite getting plenty of political cover). WMATA has threatened to cut service partially or entirely on the Silver Line. We should be concerned. While that was dismissed as a negotiating tactic itself, cutting service to the suburbs and maintaining it at the urban core actually makes fiscal sense. If you are a cash hungry organization (and WMATA is near collapse), you cut those things that bring the least revenue. MWATA doesn’t have a development interest in Loudoun. They could leave Loudoun high and dry if the math isn’t in their favor and there is NOTHING we can do about it. Loudoun is on the hook for 4.8% of the bill. If WMATA can save more than 4.8% by cutting us out, then we are in trouble.

    Becoming a financial partner to WMATA given its massive debt was a terrible decision. Loudoun should have waited until Metro straightened out its house and then joined the system. Now, we are a partner to disaster.

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