Congress Ignores Crumbling Infrastructure Even In Its Own Backyard
Policy + Politics

Congress Ignores Crumbling Infrastructure Even In Its Own Backyard

In the same week that Washington Metro passengers were forced to evacuate a station after aging transformers began belching smoke into train tunnels and thousands more suffered lengthy delays due to other equipment malfunctions, a congressional committee voted to slash federal funding of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) by one-third – from $150 million to $100 million.

The vote on Wednesday by the House Appropriations Committee underlines the continued unwillingness of Congress to invest in transportation infrastructure. It was taken the day after an Amtrak train derailed in Philadelphia, killing 8 and injuring hundreds. The committee also cut funding for the national rail system by 15 percent, or $252 million. (To be clear, early reports suggest the Amtrak crash does not appear to be related to the system’s infrastructure, which is nonetheless in need of more funding.)

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The Appropriations bill was, believe it or not, a triumph for members of Congress representing the Washington metropolitan area because in its original form, the bill would have cut funding for the WMATA by half, down to $75 million.

Metro’s proposed budget for 2016 totals $3.2 billion. However, its entire operating budget of $1.79 billion is derived from passenger fares and contributions from the governments of the District of Columbia, Virginia, and Maryland. An additional $1.3 billion is budgeted for capital improvement in 2016, which is what the federal grant helps to cover, with the three local governments contributing the remainder. The reduction would reduce Metro’s capital budget by about 4 percent next year. 

When the bill was introduced, Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA), who represents part of Northern Virginia served by four of the Metro system’s six lines, was sharply critical. “This shortsighted plan will jeopardize rider safety, derail improvements to the system, and undermine WMATA’s ability to implement National Transportation Safety Board recommendations,” he said.

“Metro is the public transportation system for our nation’s capital. It shuttles thousands of federal employees to and from work every day and helps relieve congestion on our already overburdened roads. With increasing ridership, more stops, and critical safety improvements needed, we need to invest in Metro now more than ever.”

Metro does not, however, carry very many members of Congress. Over the years, Capitol Hill newspapers, like Roll Call have looked into whether lawmakers use Metro, and they typically find that few do, preferring cabs, limousines or personal vehicles often driven by staff.

As the cuts to Amtrak indicate, the cuts in the bill were not aimed solely at D.C.-area commuters. 

Rob Healy, vice president for government affairs at the American Public Transportation Association, said his organization was “disappointed” by the vote, pointing out that “the Washington region and its economy depend on the WMATA system.”

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However, he said, there is a broader pattern at work.

“Federal funding for WMATA is authorized under a law that requires Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia to provide matching dedicated funds, which those jurisdictions have in fact provided. These cuts are especially troubling at a time when the larger federal program for public transportation is about to expire. The U.S. DOT has estimated that there is a one-time backlog of $86 billion just to bring the nation’s public transportation system into a state of good repair, and transit ridership nationally hit a more than 50-year high of 10.8 billion trips in 2014. 

Healy said that his organization “urges Congress to increase investment in the nation’s public transportation infrastructure to meet the growing demand for service and to realize the many benefits which transit investment provides for the nation.”

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