There are a lot of words to describe the D.C. Metrorail system, but "underfunded" is not one. Still, many local politicians are incensed that I oppose a proposal to give the Metro an additional $1.5 billion for infrastructure improvements. Proponents of this plan argue that the answer to Metro's problems is another huge influx of federal dollars.
I respectfully disagree. The biggest problem facing Metro may actually be too much federal funding. Like most rail systems around the country, Metro has grown accustomed to the huge subsidies it gets every year from federal taxpayers. In the last five years alone, Metro was given over $1 billion — hardly a small amount.
The difference between Metro and other municipal transit systems, however, is that other systems are both accountable to and better supported by their local users and governments. Keeping Metro on life support primarily through ever-increasing federal subsidies will only exacerbate the problems the system already faces and insulate Metro from meaningful, customer-centered reform.
Metro riders themselves are all too familiar with the system's problems. When trains are late, riders are left standing on the platform not knowing when, or if, it will ever come. Little effort is made to keep escalators working. In 2005, there were typically more than 50 broken escalators on any given day. According to Metro, it would take several months to fix an escalator, forcing people to walk up huge flights of stairs instead while they were inoperable.
Many efforts to improve the system have been a bust due to poor management. So-called refurbished trains break down more often than those that haven't been updated. Lavish "culture change" management programs have done nothing to improve management while wasting nearly half a million dollars. Meanwhile, management has failed to manage spiraling overtime costs. By 2006, Metro was spending 14 percent of its entire payroll budget on overtime, costing it $91 million that year. Although management must have known about the problem for years, it wasn't addressed until the negative publicity became too much to ignore.
The expectation of more federal dollars that aren't connected to performance has caused the system to overextend itself. Consider the $5 billion Dulles extension being sought by the state of Virginia.To keep the project alive, local politicians are forced to claim on the one hand that there is absolutely no money in the budget to fix the current system. On the other hand, they have billions available to build a 23-mile extension to Dulles Airport that few think will have an impact on traffic congestion. Is it too much to ask local governments to fix the system they already have before asking for money for expansions?
Federal taxpayers — including those from my home state of Oklahoma — have been extremely generous to the D.C. Metro. Most taxpayers will never get to set foot in a Metro car that they helped pay for. This is a helpful reminder considering the fact that the average Oklahoman, who earns $40,000 a year, subsidizes the Metro rides of federal workers in D.C. who earn $90,000 a year. Those federal workers who earn very good money make up nearly half of Metro's riders. Asking them to pay a little more would hardly be unfair or burdensome.
It also is not too much to ask supporters of this plan in Congress to propose spending offsets to pay for this additional $1.5 billion request. My office alone has identified $300 billion in annual waste, fraud and duplication in the federal budget. Any member of Congress who can't find a little fat in the federal budget is out of touch with the real-world budget choices families face every day. In the real world, Americans tighten their belts in tough times and spend less in some areas if they have to spend more in other areas. Dismissing an additional $1.5 billion for the Metro as a blip in the budget is precisely the mentality that has caused Congress to rack up a $600 billion annual deficit this year and a long-term debt of nearly $10 trillion. I make no apologies for opposing this reckless status quo culture of spending that puts the interests of career politicians ahead of the next generation.
The real solution for Metro is to return to local control, even though that means more local funding and less federal funding. If more funding came from local sources, Metro officials would have no choice but to be more accountable to local governments that are elected by local citizens. As long as I'm in the Senate, the policy that says we have to pump more federal money into a system regardless of performance and outcome is a train that will never leave the station.
Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, is a member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.