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In Budget of Billions, a Fight Over Pennies for Metro

Congress' proposed cut to Metro funding would affect hundreds of thousands of commuters. (Bill Clark/Roll Call File Photo)

When tracking this year’s inevitable budget crisis, which is showing every early sign of climaxing 16 weeks from now in another shutdown showdown, the Hill community may want to keep Metro in mind.  

Even the most seasoned members, staffers, lobbyists and reporters tend to have their eyes glaze over when confronted with appropriations numbers expressed in the multiples of billions and adding up to more than a trillion — so much of it for weapons systems, farm programs, school aid, medical research, prison construction and the like that’s way removed from their own lives.  

But this year, many can follow the fight over ending the sequester through a tiny number that shapes their daily experience: 56 cents. If you divide the proposed $50 million cut by the number of weekday subway riders in the Washington area, that small change is effectively the difference between what Metro has been expecting to spend on safety and capital improvements in the coming year and what Congress is ready to allocate so long as the budget impasse remains.  

Understanding how that infinitesimal but parochially powerful figure was calculated requires a brief trip to the fiscal stratosphere.  

Having decided to remain hemmed in by the spending caps for as long as possible, Republicans are advancing a collection of tightly constructed domestic appropriations bills through the House. The most recent, which moved toward passage Tuesday night, would cut discretionary spending on transportation to $17.2 billion, which is 3 percent less than what’s being spent this year and a whopping 28 percent less than President Barack Obama wants for federal aid to highways, rail lines, airports and mass transit systems.  

Holding the grand total down required some politically risky choices. For the thousands of people who arrive on the Hill each morning through the Union Station or Capitol South stations, none may have been more disappointing than this one: The annual congressional subsidy for Metro, which had been a steady $150 million for eight straight years, would be reduced to $100 million.  

That cut of 33 percent, or $50 million, amounts to 1 one-hundredth of 1 percent of all the non-defense dollars Congress will be permitted to appropriate for fiscal 2016 so long as the sequester rules stay in place. But that relative drop in the federal bucket works out to $138 on behalf of every person riding the rails to and from the office that may not be spent in the next year to better their commuting lives.  

That’s 56 cents for every commuter (about 360,000 of them) every working day that wouldn’t get spent on replacing 300 or so moldy-carpeted and federally labeled “crashworthy” rail cars from the 1970s, or installing new brake pads on trains that aren’t quite as old so they don’t infuse stations with an acrid stench at every stop. It’s money that wouldn’t be spent plugging the drippy leaks in tunnels under the Potomac River and Rock Creek, or upgrading the sorts of faulty power cables and balky control-room software that combined to maroon a Yellow Line train in a blanket of noxious fumes down the track from L’Enfant Plaza five months ago — sickening scores of riders and suffocating one of them.  

It’s a tiny speck of money in the federal big picture, in other words, but with a potentially outsized impact on the lives of the people who write the legislation, administer the programs or lobby the folks who keep the federal government going.  

The impact is in part because the $150 million Congress has been contributing annually to Metro’s fund for maintenance and safety upgrades has been matched with $50 million each from Maryland, Virginia and the District. Those were the terms of a 10-year arrangement enacted as a 2008 law recognizing the unique reliance the workers of Congress and the executive branch have on the nation’s second-busiest subway system. But if the appropriation drops, there’s no reason to expect the three local jurisdictions will keep up their end of the deal.  

“It would be shortsighted for Congress to threaten to unravel this partnership given the federal government’s unique relationship with and responsibility to Metro,” said a statement from all nine House members with Metro commuter constituents in their districts: D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, five of her fellow Democrats from the Maryland suburbs and a pair of Democrats plus Republican freshman Barbara Comstock from Northern Virginia.  

The group was not even able to get a floor vote last week on its proposal to restore the money, because under the House rules an amendment to increase funding for a program is out of order unless it calls for an offsetting cut from another part of the bill.  

In their report to go along with their transportation and housing spending package, House appropriators made the valid point that the people in charge at the Washington Metro Area Transit Authority need to be doing more, and faster, with the money they’ve already received – not only to correct safety problems raised by the National Transportation Safety Board after the Jan. 12 smoke incident, but also to address financial, contracting and accounting concerns raised in an audit by the Federal Transit Administration.  

And the most powerful advocate for Metro funding in Congress, ranking Senate Appropriations Committee Democrat Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland, signaled she’s not excited about going to bat for the missing $50 million unless Metro heads that warning. “Fix it and fix it now,” she said in a letter Monday to the WMATA board.  

If the spending strictures are eased even a little bit in order to settle this year’s budget standoff — which seems as inevitable as the political brinkmanship beforehand — it’s a good bet lawmakers will find the metaphorical extra pennies to make Metro whole.  

“Everybody here has tons of staff who rely on it every day to get to work,” Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia told The Washington Post, predicting ultimate victory. If members “just listen to their own staff,” he said, they are sure to conclude the cut is “a really bad idea.”  

 

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