It’s all too easy for a struggling business to spiral downhill. Declining revenues force painful cost cuts that make the product less desirable, which further drives customers away — and the cycle continues.
There’s reason for concern that the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority is following a similar pattern. A reputation for unsafe and unreliable service discourages riders, as do the short-term disruptions to complete a backlog of maintenance and repairs. With fewer users, it’s tougher to fund frequent rail and bus service, encouraging riders to find alternative transportation options.
But Metro isn’t just an ordinary business. It’s a major public service to the region, providing a much-needed alternative to automobile trips and boosting property values in areas near its transit routes. When Metro struggles, riders and non-riders alike must deal with the effects.
That’s why government assistance for Metro is so essential. It’s unreasonable to rely on transit riders to fund a system with such broad benefits. While the system gets support from local and federal contributions, they are not sufficient for Metro’s great needs.
According to a report released last Wednesday by Metro general manager Paul Wiedefeld, Metro needs a stable $500 million in capital funding from regional governments, among other commitments. As we’ve noted before, Metro has struggled to create long-term spending plans when jurisdictions only budget for the transit authority one year at a time. Dedicating certain local government revenue to Metro is the clear solution, as Mr. Wiedefeld’s report reiterates.
The general manager’s proposal also includes cost reductions at Metro, including continued efforts to eliminate poorly performing service and control staffing expenses. While the latter in particular will require union collaboration, it’s essential that Metro demonstrate willingness to find internal solutions to complement its funding requests.
Getting all the jurisdictions to agree to any plan is bound to be difficult. We’re encouraged that a panel headed by former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Roy LaHood will be responsible for making recommendations to lawmakers — primarily in Maryland and Virginia, where there’s been less support for new taxes than in D.C. A 1 percent sales tax is one popular proposal. We’re also intrigued by an idea to increase property taxes in areas near Metro stations, given the benefits that property owners receive there — though we’d want to ensure that such an option protects low-income residents from being pushed out of transit-friendly neighborhoods.
In general, stakeholders need to coalesce around a workable agreement that achieves the overarching goal: to provide Metro with the funding it needs to remain desirable, thereby keeping cars off the streets and protecting the strong demand for development near Metro stations.