Friday, August 1, 2008

The political football that is the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (or Metro) is now loose in a Senate spending rumble. The Advance America’s Priorities Act, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s inaptly named omnibus bill for earmarks and pet projects, contains $1.5 billion in federal funding for Metro. The bill is stalled. Credit goes to Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, for fighting what Citizens Against Government Waste calls Mr. Reid’s “sour grapes” legislation. We prefer calling it the “Tomnibus bill.” It exists because the independent-minded and abstemious Mr. Coburn doesn’t adhere to business as usual in the Senate. Then there is Metro.

Metro requires a dedicated funding source, this much is certain. But the first responsibility here falls to the District, Maryland and Virginia, as it always has. This year’s fare increase and parking increases were needed steps in the direction of fiscal sustainability. That much was inevitable as energy costs rise. But the case for federal funding is not automatic on any account. Mr. Coburn believes that Metro funding should be born by those who use the service, not the federal taxpayer. As this view’s most recent expositor, it is hard to argue. This is about aligning the interests that drive public spending.

Mr. Reid’s provision requires the District, Maryland and Virginia to show dedicated funding before they access any of the $1.5 billion in federal funding. So, the present, probably doomed legislation attempts to shake money free from all funding sources in what amounts to a pragmatic bow to the obstinate positions of the three municipalities. Call it “realism,” but Mr. Coburn doesn’t. He knows that all the wrong lessons would be learned if this elaborate Metro-funding game were to end in what the District, Maryland and Virginia could only regard as evidence that they were right all along. Pass the buck, and you get lots of them in return.

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