Fight Over Metro Board Seats Raises Larger Issues

Recently the Governor announced that VA would withholding its share of the funding for the Metro transit service until the board seats were reconfigured to give the Commonwealth more representation.

That ham-handed pronouncement appears to now be balanced by Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton yesterday stating that the money would be funded so that METRO — which is notoriously cash-strapped — can meet its obligations to match funds from the Feds. However, the same issues apply.

While the Governor was way too cavalier in his commitment to METRO, which serves thousands daily in central Fairfax, there are some underlying issues which need to be addressed.

1. The METRO ship is continually dysfunctional. Much like the escalators which are continually out of operation, the METRO system has suffered continual problems over the past few years, culminating in last year’s horrific crash. It has suffered thefts. It has incurred unsustainable costs in ordinary operations. It has continually raised fares (next increase this weekend). There is a massive amount of oversight which is necessary.

2. The Virginia model of part-time lawmaker is a very poor model for this type of oversight. I will be the first to admit. Outside of my regular law practice and my Senate service, I have very little time to focus on an additional commission. (I serve on two — Civics Education and Energy but each meets 3-4 times a year). Managing a multi-billion dollar outfit like METRO requires full time and attention. A part-time lawmaker does not have the ability to focus on issues, find solutions and devote the resources to managing the system.

3. The multi-state nature is problematic. A regional system is an absolute must for a transit system in our area. Yet VA, MD and DC have very different laws and political cultures. Virginia continues to grow in population, jobs and influence. Fairfax County alone is twice the population of Washington D.C. Yet our representation stays the same? Virginia deserves an increasing say as our share of the operations and population increases.

4. The METRO Board requires professional expertise. Someone who has operated transit (rail or bus) systems and knows the ordinary “cost per rider” or “cost per mile” of the services provided. Again, a part-time lawmaker (who holds another full-time job away from politics) will not have this knowledge.

The METRO system, flawed as it is, is essential to the economic well-being of Northern Virginia. There is no substitute. Having said that, the make-up of the METRO board is not set in stone. It deserves to be reviewed and updated to reflect the changing face of a forty year-old system.

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