A Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority train pulls out of a station in Washington. (VCU Capital News Service)
Northern Virginia is among the fastest growing regions of the state, in part due to its proximity to our nation’s capital. As state lawmakers in Richmond look ahead to the future, a well-functioning Washington, D.C. Metro system – which includes multiple rail lines, bus routes, and paratransit into Virginia – is essential for continued economic growth and success. However, the D.C. Metro system faces dire financial straits; without the state of Virginia stepping up to the plate, it could falter and ultimately fail.
Founded in 1967, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) transports hundreds of millions of passengers per year. In previous years, WMATA transported more than 300 million people each year, but in 2022 only transported about 160 million. There has been a steady decline of riders over the past decade, one which the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated. Unfortunately, the reduced ridership has contributed to a financial emergency. Unfortunately, the reduction in riders, rising maintenance costs and administrative bloat have contributed to an estimated budget shortfall of more than $700 million beginning next fiscal year in July 2024.
To make matters worse, Virginia elected officials’ recent rhetoric and general disdain for public transportation in the greater D.C. Metro area has called into question the state’s willingness to abide by their obligations to pay their fair share to fund WMATA and service Northern Virginia residents.
Because of the unique geographic circumstances and political realities, WMATA has to combat challenges no other public transit authority in the country faces. Any operational improvement or increase in funding requires the states of Maryland, Virginia, as well as the city of Washington, D.C. to subject to Congressional oversight to cooperate. ATU Local 689 represents more than 15,000 dedicated public and private transit workers throughout D.C. and Northern Virginia. The lack of concrete support from Virginian elected officials, which is essential for the continual operation of the Metro going forward, is disheartening.
Our members rely on WMATA for their jobs in order to support their families. They should not be abandoned and neither should the thousands of customers who rely on the D.C. Metro system as their only mode of transportation. Local 689 prioritizes doing what is right for the safety of our riding public, our members and everyone who relies on public transit. The budget shortfall will not be solved overnight and in order to do so, all parties – including Virginia – must fully participate in the process.
We are actively engaged in conversations to tackle the financial instability with our partners and have been making great progress to devise possible solutions. However, one obstacle stands in our way. According to the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission, Virginia will contribute roughly $622 million during the current fiscal year (July 1, 2023-June 30, 2024) to keep WMATA trains and buses running. A Virginia state law enacted in 2018 caps the growth of Virginia’s contribution to WMATA operations at 3%. With the imposed cap, the 3% increase in the state’s obligation does not cover the increased costs necessary to keep WMATA services functioning at full capacity. It is clear that additional funding from Virginia as well as Maryland, D.C. itself and possibly the federal government is essential. To accomplish this, Virginia lawmakers should remove the 3% cap or at the very least carve out an exception in the state law for dire financial situations.
In addition, Virginia voters throughout Northern Virginia should elect state and local officials who prioritize public transit and ensure it is equitable and sustainable moving forward. Virginians deserve representatives who are going to be accountable to them. The fiscal cliff WMATA faces is not imaginary and it will not go away if it’s ignored. Everyday, people in Northern Virginia rely on the public transportation system like the buses and Metro to commute to work, get to the grocery store, and so much more; Metro plays an important role in the continued success of the whole region. Virginia residents need elected leaders who are willing to not just talk the talk, but walk the walk and ensure the Metro is adequately funded and fully operational.
With the November election over, Virginia voters who support public transportation can continue to make their voices heard through advocacy in the statehouse. Once the new session begins next January, there is only a short period of time for lawmakers to take action to save WMATA. Local 689 is not standing by; we are already working to keep the Metro functioning in the years ahead. It is time for Virginia to work with us.
Editor’s note: This column has been corrected to reflect the actual amount Virginia contributes to Metro funding, $622 million for the current fiscal year, not $330 million as previously stated. We apologize for the error.
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