Earmark for Metro: Call it excess express

Originally published in the Baltimore Sun

A proposed federal subsidy for the Washington Metro would top Alaska's Bridge to Nowhere and Mississippi's Train to Nowhere for excess. And if enacted, it would require the two Maryland counties where Metro operates to come up with a "dedicated funding match" - in other words, a tax increase.

Rep. Tom Davis, a Virginia Republican, got the House of Representatives to pass an amendment to a bill that would divert $1.5 billion of federal revenues from offshore drilling to subsidize the deeply troubled Metro transit system that serves the nation's Capital, his Northern Virginia district and other Washington suburbs.

If enacted, the amended bill would be one of the largest pork-barrel earmarks in history. And it would compel Montgomery and Prince George's counties - which account for 40 percent of Metro's riders - to contribute about $55 million a year to the system, most likely through dedicated taxes.

Mr. Davis justifies taxpayer funding for this local project on the grounds that "Metro ... is essential for the continued and effective performance of the functions of the federal government and for the orderly movement of people during major events and times of regional and national emergency."

But Metro provides no such service. Unreliable and poorly run, the system is subject to frequent shutdowns and service interruptions because of equipment failure, operator incompetence, bad weather, suicides and passenger medical emergencies. And as for the need to get the federal work force to the office, a Metro spokeswoman noted during last month's weather related disruptions that "because nearly half of Metro's daily commuters are federal government employees ... delays could be less severe if large numbers of them take advantage of the unscheduled leave option and stay home."

In other words, Metro's service can be improved if federal workers don't go to work.

In fairness, Metro confronts horrific self-inflicted problems, chief among them a legacy of mismanagement and high cost operations. As a consequence of its many inefficiencies and low fares, Metro is broke and has no funds to add to capacity, replace unreliable rolling stock, or make other necessary repairs. Although it has raised fares twice in the past two years, the increases were modest and well below the costs incurred by local motorists facing soaring gasoline prices.

Another troubling aspect of this costly earmark is the regressive nature of the spending policies the legislation promotes. Notwithstanding its sponsor's contention that subsidizing the daily commute for civil servants is an essential national need, Washington-area workers are among the best paid in the nation. The 2004 median household income was $82,971 in Montgomery County and $88,133 in the Fairfax County area of Mr. Davis' district, compared with the nationwide median income of $44,684.

As such, the congressman is proposing a costly exercise in trickle-up economics to compel Americans across the country to subsidize the transportation needs of a small segment of one of the nation's most prosperous communities.

As troubling as these unfair income transfers are, Mr. Davis' requirement for a "dedicated funding source" compounds the regressive nature of the limited benefits the congresssman's scheme would provide to a small percentage of the area's population.

While Mr. Davis is justified in his concern about Metro's poor performance, his plan would reward that poor performance with a costly taxpayer bailout. Instead, local jurisdictions should force reforms on Metro by linking the continuation of the system's existing federal and local subsidies - about $400 million annually - to reductions in operating costs and improvements in service, reforms implemented elsewhere.

In recent years, Denver and London, to name just two cities, have given up on the socialist transit model advocated by Mr. Davis by implementing aggressive programs that competitively bid out the management of their transit systems to private operators.