House appropriators looking to cut funding for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority are facing a backlash from regional lawmakers.
In the fiscal 2016 spending bill the House Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Appropriations Subcommittee approved Wednesday, the subcommittee allocated $75 million to WMATA. That figure is half the amount that has been typically allocated to the Metro since 2009. The head of the panel said Thursday he was already hearing from members of Congress, including Rep. Barbara Comstock of Virginia, the lone Republican in the region's delegations whose district is served by the Metro.
“I’ve already been approached by Comstock and by a bunch of other folks in that area. Look, that’s an issue we’re going to have to continue to look at," Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., said in the Speaker's Lobby Wednesday afternoon. He cautioned that the subcommittee's approval was the first step in a long appropriations process.
“It’s not that we went out to target Metro for some specific reason," Diaz-Balart said. "It’s the fact that when you put a budget together of this magnitude, you’ve got to make tough decisions. But again, it’s a long process and we’ll continue to refine and to improve."
As the Florida Republican indicated, the cut was met with criticism from the House members of the National Capital Region Congressional Delegation, those from D.C., Virginia and Maryland.
"Providing anything less than the federal commitment of $150 million would jeopardize rider safety and the successful partnership with Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia to fund the purchase of new rail cars and vital safety improvements throughout the system in response to [National Transportation Safety Board] and [Federal Transit Administration] recommendations," the lawmakers said in a joint statement.
The delegations' dean and stalwart in the Senate, Barbara A. Mikulski, indicated the cuts would face opposition in the Senate.
"The House appropriators cut everything because they're marking up below sequester, this post-sequester issue. So we disagree with their fundamental premise," said Mikulski, who is also the Senate's ranking member of the Appropriations Committee. The Maryland Democrat worked to pass the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, which authorized $1.5 billion for WMATA to be doled out over 10 years, amounting to $150 million per year.
"Right now we're working on our strategy," Mikulski said, when asked Wednesday whether the funding would be restored.
But some lawmakers went further, arguing that restoring funding is vital to maintaining Metro safety.
"More than half of Metro’s rush hour passengers are federal workers, and the federal government cannot operate without Metro," Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., said in a Tuesday statement. "To drastically cut the funds in the seventh year is to derail WMATA’s most important safety priorities."
The funding cut comes as WMATA is implementing NTSB recommendations following a deadly January incident at the L'Enfant Plaza Metro stop, where a Yellow Line train stalled inside a tunnel and passengers were trapped in a smoke-filled train as they waited for first responders.
“This shortsighted plan will jeopardize rider safety, derail improvements to the system, and undermine WMATA’s ability to implement National Transportation Safety Board recommendations,” Rep. Don Beyer Jr., D-Va., said in a statement. Carol I. Glover, the woman who died of acute respiratory failure due to smoke exposure at L'Enfant, was from Beyer's district.
In addition to the cut, the bill stipulates that prior to approving grants for WMATA, the Transportation secretary must certify WMATA "is making significant progress in eliminating the material weaknesses, significant deficiencies, and minor control deficiencies." Also, prior to approving a grant, the secretary must also determine that WMATA "has placed the highest priority on those investments that will improve the safety of the system."
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