- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 10, 2006

The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments yesterday called the rising gasoline prices a “congestion tax,” in an effort to increase support for more local funding for Metro.

“Congestion itself results in a de facto tax,” said Jay Fisette, Arlington County Board member and chairman of COG’s board of directors.

“The public at large is dealing with a significant rise in gas prices,” Mr. Fisette said. “It’s on everyone’s mind, and there’s no question that rising gas prices raise the importance of mass transit as an alternative.”

Mr. Fisette cited a study published by the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission that showed drivers in the D.C. metropolitan area are paying $2.5 billion, or about $577 each, more for gasoline this year than a year ago. Mr. Fisette serves on NVTC’s board.

“This is a ‘tax’ paid to the oil companies and oil supplying countries,” the study said.

COG spokesman Steve Kania said, “Some people say it’s a stretch to call it a congestion tax, but the general idea is that they need to be able to keep up with more demand.”

Metro has had higher ridership since gasoline prices increased. Two of the highest ridership days were in April, even though no major events were taking place in the area on those days. The system’s highest ridership days previously had been tied to major events.

“Certainly when the gas prices went up to $3, we noticed it,” said Candace Smith, a Metro spokeswoman.

Ridership also has increased over the years, from 146 million trips in 1996 to 195 million trips last year.

Mrs. Smith said Metro has not described the rising gas prices as a “congestion tax.”

“We haven’t been tying gas prices and dedicated funding. What we have said about gas prices is that ridership has gone up,” she said.

Local governments pay an amount toward Metro’s $1.1 billion operating budget that is determined by the number of Metro stations in their respective areas.

The D.C. government pays $179.2 million. Maryland pays $177.2 million on behalf of Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. Five Virginia localities pay a total of $134.5 million.

Ridership and advertising revenue pay for 60 percent of Metro’s $700 million capital budget, with the federal government and local governments funding the rest, Mrs. Smith said.

Metro has long complained that it does not have a “dedicated” funding stream, but “dedicated” funds from local governments would be added to what they already pay.

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, Virginia Republican, last year proposed $1.5 billion in additional federal funds for Metro over 10 years. The funds are contingent upon whether local governments agree to provide dedicated matching funding.

Only the District has set aside “dedicated” funding for Metro. Last month, Mayor Anthony A. Williams signed a D.C. Council bill that would direct 0.05 percent of retail sales tax revenue to “dedicated” funding.

Maryland’s General Assembly, which adjourned last month, did not pass any related legislation this year. The Democrat-controlled legislature has asked the state transportation department to conduct a study on whether dedicated funding for Metro is possible.

In Virginia, the Republican-controlled legislature is in special session to decide whether to raise taxes to pay for road improvements.

Mr. Fisette said most of the transportation proposals being debated in Virginia “include $50 million of dedicated funding for Metro.”

The money would go toward purchasing 340 train cars and 275 buses, and for other capital improvements, Mrs. Smith said. Metro’s current fleet consists of more than 900 rail cars and nearly 1,500 buses.

“It’s about capacity,” Mrs. Smith said. “It’s kind of like the ‘Field of Dreams’ movie: ‘Build it and they will come.’”

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