- The Washington Times - Friday, July 28, 2000

Twenty-four years ago, passengers took their first ride on the city's subway system. Less than a year from now, taxpayers should be celebrating a milestone with the completion of the last leg of the original 103-mile Metrorail system. But will they?

Will taxpayers have forgotten the series of recent fires that endangered passengers and crew? The procurement violations that spawned federal investigations and led to resignation of a high-level Metro official? Will they have forgotten years of egregious escalator mishaps and other safety near misses? Will they remember that the original estimate for constructing the subway system was $2.5 billion but that costs are now in excess of $10 billion? Will Congress remember that, in addition to the local tax dollars that subsidize the troubled mass transit system, federal tax dollars cover approximately 80 percent? Will Metro officials remember that they themselves drive up subsidies by deliberately suppressing fares?

While Metro officials will want taxpayers to believe completion of the original plan is worthy of celebration, questions regarding how Metro manages public dollars are of the utmost concern because few major projects undertaken by Metro have actually come in at or even near estimated costs. The latest example is the new station proposed on the Red Line, one of several expansion projects already approved by Metro officials. To be built near New York and Florida avenues in Northeast Washington, the station's original price tag was $60 million. By June it had risen to $75 million with the D.C. and federal governments each paying one-third, and local businesses contributing the remainder through a self-levied tax. Now Metro says the cost has ballooned to $84 million, and D.C. taxpayers are expected to kick in that extra $9 million.

First of all that is an unreasonable expectation when you consider Metro's lame explanation. Now, with all the talk and documentation in recent years about the growth in housing sales and projected growth in economic development in the nation's capital, D.C. taxpayers are supposed to believe the shifts in the real estate market caught Metro officials off-guard? Most people know better.

D.C. Council member Carol Schwartz, chairman of the Public Works Committee, said Metro should have provided a more accurate estimate so the city would not have to continue searching for more money. "The new estimate is more than 10 percent," Mrs. Schwartz told Jim Keary of The Washington Times the other day. "I find the escalation way out of whack with inflation. They knew when they planned to build this, so they should have known what it would cost. This is a very great concern to me because we are having a hard enough time getting the $75 million, much less $84 million."

Indeed, Metro's general manager, Richard White, and its board of directors have known since the early 1990s that the city was interested in constructing a station on New York Avenue, and that interest grew even more so before plans for the new convention center were finalized in 1998. Are taxpayers now to believe that Metro only learned in recent days that it needed an additional $9 million to build the new station? Frankly, that is impossible considering that just two short years ago the estimate was $60 million.

This page said then such projects should be derailed, and it is taking that same position today, for several sound reasons. Metro needs to do some serious housecleaning and regain the public's trust before it begins sucking up dollars to expand itself.

The April 20 fire on the Red Line (the system's busiest) left nearly 300 passengers stranded in a smoke-filled train for two hours, scared the daylights out of their families and friends and tied up motorists. Mr. White said less than two weeks ago that Metro has not yet fully implemented "whatever actions" are necessary "to prevent similar mishaps from recurring." That is spooky.

Remember now, several other "mishaps" have occurred since then, including other fires, a runaway train and a "mock" disaster drill that turned into a disaster. Moreover, while the probe by the Federal Transit Administration did not turn up any criminal violations, it nonetheless cited deficiencies and irregularities in procurement, including sole-source contracts.

Is it not interesting, then, that Mr. White would propose, as he did, that his board of directors approve his plan to pay four consulting firms $68.3 million for 42 design and engineering proposals during one fiscal year (2001) instead of seeking competitive bids? The board is scheduled to vote on the plan today, and it should vote no.

Here again, the concern is how Metro manages and prioritizes public dollars. On the one hand, Mr. White has estimated that between today and 2025 Metro will need nearly $10 billion to keep pace with ridership, maintenance and such, but current projections are only $6.4 billion. Who do you suppose will be expected to make up the difference? Will Metro riders be expected to pay higher fares? Will Metro employees have to forgo raises? Will safety be compromised? Will Northern Virginians' plans to have a rail line near the Dulles corridor be derailed? How about that new parking garage in Vienna? No? Maybe the Blue Line extension in Largo?

Seems at this juncture, as one phase of Metro draws to a close and another begins, taxpayers, those who use Metro and those who don't, need to ask Mr. White where Metro is really headed.

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