Democrat’s fix for Metro: $750 million from feds in exchange for governance, labor changes

Metro would receive an extra $750 million in federal funds over 10 years in exchange for changes in the transit system’s governance structure and labor contracts under a bill proposed Thursday by a Maryland congressman.

The legislation put forward by Rep. John Delaney (D) is the first of two bills that representatives from the region plan to submit in a bid to force the District, Maryland and Virginia to rewrite Metro’s compact, the document that outlines how the agency is governed and funded.

Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) is drafting the other bill.

The congressional initiatives reflect a growing conviction in the Washington region that Metro needs fundamental changes in its governance and funding if the agency is to solve its chronic safety, reliability and financial problems.

Virginia elected officials of both political parties and area business groups also are advocating changes in the compact.

Delaney’s bill shrinks the Metro board to nine members from 16, to make it more efficient, and requires members to have certain professional skills or experience.

It also requires that Metro make unspecified changes in its collective bargaining agreements that the new board would certify as necessary “to provide a high level of service, reliability and safety.”

Comstock’s bill, which will probably get a more sympathetic hearing in the GOP-controlled Congress, will not include extra federal money for Metro. She said governance and labor reforms must come first. Her bill also will require bigger concessions from Metro’s labor unions than Delaney’s.

But both Delaney’s bill and the one planned by Comstock include a far-reaching provision. Both would withdraw Congress’s approval of the Metro compact unless the transit system’s governing structure is revamped. That would leave Metro in legal limbo and also deprive it of $150 million a year in federal funds that it receives.

“Congress cannot consent to a broken Metro forever, and if these changes are not met, we should withdraw from the compact,” Delaney said.

Under his bill, Congress would withdraw its assent to the Metro compact if the three jurisdictions failed to make the governance changes within 21 months.

With the changes, however, the federal government would give Metro an extra $75 million a year for 10 years, providing that the three jurisdiction contributed an extra $25 million apiece in matching funds. That would be on top of the $150 million that Congress now gives Metro under a law that will expire in 2019 unless it is extended.

“There’s a bit of a carrot and a stick here,” Delaney said.

Delaney conceded that his legislation faces “very significant challenges” in the Republican-dominated House, which has tried unsuccessfully in the past to kill the annual grants for Metro.

Delaney’s bill, surprisingly, drew criticism from a fellow Democrat, Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (Va.). Connolly praised Delaney for his “commitment to improve Metro” but said it was a mistake to float the idea of giving Metro an additional $75 million a year.

He said he feared Republicans might treat that figure as a substitute for — instead of an addition to — the existing $150 million the agency receives.

“You really think the Republican Congress is going to give us two tranches of money?” Connolly said.

Connolly also faulted Delaney’s proposed standards for Metro board members, which would probably have the effect of keeping elected officials off the board. Connolly said Northern Virginia counties and municipalities, which pay most of Virginia’s share of Metro’s costs, deserve to have their elected representatives on the board if they so choose.

Delaney’s bill does not take a stand on whether to keep binding arbitration of labor disputes. Instead, it allows the new board to make that decision.

Comstock has said her bill will end binding arbitration to rein in labor costs. Without it, however, unions would be free to strike, raising the risk of work stoppages that would paralyze commuting in the nation’s capital.

But Delaney does insist on adjusting current union contracts to give management greater flexibility, such as to reassign workers or use outside contractors. He would preserve existing wage safeguards for Metro workers under the federal Davis-Bacon Act.

“ I’m all for union protections. I also want [management] to be able to operate the system,” Delaney said.

A centerpiece of Delaney’s bill is overhauling the Metro board, which has long been criticized as unwieldy.

The board has eight voting members and eight alternates — evenly divided among the District, Maryland, Virginia and the federal government.

Delaney’s bill would get rid of the eight alternates and add the Metro chief executive, Paul J. Wiedefeld, for a total of nine members.

In addition, the revised compact would specify that board members have a primary legal responsibility to Metro’s overall interest. At present, members’ fiduciary duties are split between representing Metro as whole and representing the jurisdictions that appointed them.

The bill also provides that all Metro board members be certified as meeting certain high professional standards in transit, management, finances or safety. For instance, a member would have to have served as a senior executive of a transit authority or have managed more than 1,000 full-time employees for at least five years.

It is unclear when Comstock will submit her bill. Spokesman Jeff Marschner said her staff is consulting with key stakeholders including representatives of U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao.

“This legislation is vitally important for the region, and we want to get it right,” Marschner said.

In an apparent suggestion that Delaney’s bill was likely to fail, Marschner added, “We also want [the bill] to have a chance of ultimately becoming law.”

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