Metrorail’s General Manager Paul Wiedefeld came to Loudoun for his annual meeting with county supervisors Wednesday, saying the system “on the right track” but a long way from financial stability.
“Since we’ve got the system moving in the right direction, it is important to look to the future,” Wiedefeld said. “The region has a $40 billion investment—that’s what the system cost to build and to basically have what we have there today. It plays a huge role in the economy of the region, it deals with traffic congestion, it improves the overall air quality and a number of other things.”
He said Metro still has about $25 billion worth of unfunded needs, accumulated over years of poor maintenance and under-investment. His report also pointed out the concerns about its unpredictable, one-year-at-time funding model from local, state, and federal budgets, and an “unsustainable” budget with costs rising nearly twice as fast as fares and commercial revenues.
To get Metro in good shape, he said, member jurisdictions will have to invest $1.5 billion a year over the next 10 years—collectively around $600 million more than they do now—and establish a dependable source of funding for capital projects that pulls in $500 million a year.
Loudoun’s leaders have previously proposed a way to meet that funding gap by creating a regional organization that can issue debt. Currently, Metro issues revenue bonds, but because of its unusual funding structure cannot issue general obligation bonds like other government organizations.
He also proposed increasing member jurisdictions’ capital contributions—the money that goes toward big projects rather than operating costs—by 3 percent annually, and capping how fast their subsidies of the operating budget grow at 3 percent annually. That comes alongside other management practices like establishing a rainy day fund, modifying the system’s binding arbitration with its employees, and opening the system to competitive bidding for certain work.
Supervisors largely congratulated Wiedefeld’s work getting Metro to where it is today.
“One of the issues that I see is you’ve done largely what you can on your side, and I think that’s important for all of us to understand,” said Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles). “When someone from the outside calls for further reform, you’re limited by what you can do, and that means it’s on legislators to make some changes.”
Wiedefeld agreed that there was nothing left to do on the scale of projects so far like SafeTrack, which compressed years of work down into one year by shutting down sections of track for long stretches of time while they are repaired.
Supervisor Ron A. Meyer Jr. (R-Broad Run) said he is “particularly appreciative” of the work to keep costs down for riders. He said ticket costs can get prohibitive.
“For people out here in Loudoun, when the Silver Line gets here, getting to the city, we’re talking about more than a $7 fare mostly likely,” Meyer said. That, he said, may be affordable compared to parking in DC or tolls on the way, “but still not exactly something that you would, I think, ideally pick, for public transportation to be that high.”
And County Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) pointed out that a tremendous number of Metro riders are federal employees.
“It seems to me that Metro is not Loudoun’s Metro, or Fairfax’s Metro, or the region’s Metro,” she said. “Metro moves the federal workforce, which means Metro is important to the country. If the federal workforce stops moving, it affects the country.”
Despite the federal government’s reliance on Metro, Congress does not contribute to Metro’s operating costs, only its capital costs. Wiedefeld said, “I strongly feel that they have a role to play” in funding the transit system, and that “we are chasing every avenue to make that the case.”
“I had the good fortune of actually meeting with the president during a snowstorm, and brought to his attention that at the end of the day, if we don’t perform, the government doesn’t open the next day,” Wiedefeld said.