WASHINGTON (CN) – The head of the Washington Metrorail system on Wednesday took on congressional Republicans who are threatening to withhold federal dollars he called necessary to help the system operate safely and reliably.
Jack Evans, chair of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority Board of Directors, called on Congress Wednesday to give the maligned transit system $300 million to help cut into a $150 million shortfall in next year’s budget.
Evans accused the federal government of skipping out on paying its share for the capital’s metro system, saying Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia combine to pitch in $900 million in funding while the feds contribute nothing in operating costs.
“Right now, each jurisdiction pays approximately $300 million, the federal government is a full partner, a fourth partner who pays zero,” Evans told the lawmakers.
Rep. John Mica, a Florida Republican and chairman of the House Subcommittee on Transportation and Public Assets, was incensed by Evans’ pleas for money, saying WMATA has millions of dollars in other funds it could use to cover operating expenses.
“I’m telling you, I am not going to bail you out,” Mica said. “I am not going to support bailing out the District of Columbia.”
Evans later said the money Mica was referring to is tied up in long-term projects like buying new trains for the metro system or building a new tunnel underneath the Potomac River to alleviate a bottle neck that slows travel.
Washington’s metro system has experienced a number of high-profile safety and reliability problems in recent months, beginning last January when a woman died after an electrical failure caused a train to become stuck in a smoke-filled tunnel.
The entire system, which is the second largest in the country, shut down last month after a similar electrical problem caused long delays on one of its lines, and Evans made waves in Washington last month when he suggested an entire section of the metro might have to shut down for six months to make the proper repairs.
Mica blamed Metro’s safety and reliability problems on poor management, calling for firings or resignations across the system. The federal government, and by extension his constituents, would not be coming to save a system plagued by mismanagement, Mica said.
“They have the money available, what they have is incompetence,” Mica said.
But Mica faced attacks from two fronts after threatening to not contribute federal dollars to WMATA.
Rep. Gerald Connolly, a Democrat who represents large swaths of northern Virginia, accused Mica of sloughing costs that should go to the federal government onto Connolly’s constituents.
“I’m just saying, you know, where you stand is where you sit, and where my constituents stand is that the federal government gets a free ride every day on Metro because it doesn’t pay operating subsidies,” Connelly said.
Later, when Rep. Mark Meadows, a North Carolina Republican, repeated some of Mica’s points while questioning Evans and WMATA General Manager and CEO Paul Wiedefeld, Evans issued a fiery challenge of Republicans’ unwillingness to let the federal dollars flow.
“If we leave here today and do nothing, I mean Mr. chairman you’re saying you’re not going to give us a dime?” Evans said. “Really? Is that what you’re saying? We need resources for this system. This is your system, this is my system. You’re going to put your kids and your parents on this system that is a system like it is today? Really, give me a break.”
He pointed to systems like those in London, Paris and Beijing that receive all of their funding from the national government, and suggested the only way to meet their standards would be for Washington to pour more money into the system.
“If we want a world class system like they have, the federal governments in those countries pay for all of the system,” Evans said. “All I’m asking you for is for $300 million, which is your fair share given the fact that we transport 50 percent of your workforce every day. We want them to be safe, we want this to be reliable. If you just want to leave them like in 2005, then do nothing. If you do that, next time something happens, I’m blaming it on you guys.”
Evans, who also had a stint on WMATA’s board between 1992 and 1999, said he was “outraged” in metro’s decline in the 15 years he was away from the system but insisted the problems could be fixed with some targeted attention.
“We don’t need any more criticism, we need help,” Evans told reporters after the hearing.
While Evans clashed with Mica and Meadows, Connelly’s fellow northern Virginia lawmaker, Republican Rep. Barbara Comstock, seemed to agree the metro system needs federal help, and called for lawmakers to rise about infighting.
“There will be time later for some of the food fights and some of the things we have seen here, but I think where we need to focus right now is on what Mr. Weidefeld is focused on,” she said.
After the hearing Evans was hopeful Comstock and Connelly could team up with Washington, D.C. Democrat Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton to convince her colleagues to fund the metro system. Invoking the name of the woman who died in last year’s smoke incident, Evans reminded lawmakers of the urgent need to address the funding gap. “We all ought to remember that name, it’s Carol Glover, for those of you who don’t remember,” Evans said. “She died on our system, because of inaction by everybody in this room, ok?”
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