The taking of Metro one, two, three — minus the guns and thrill seekers. In today’s real-life situation, we all are hostages.
Like the transit workers and hijackers in the original 1974 Hollywood flick “The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three,” passengers and overseers of the D.C. region’s system, Metro, are situated between a rock (money) and a hard place (public safety). In “Pelham,” the money involves a finite amount; with Metro, not so much.
Taxpayers have been bleeding money as Metro grew bigger and bigger without positive results, while accountability rarely came into view, leaving Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx to deliver some choice words about Metro on Tuesday.
“We have the ability to withhold [federal] funds from Metro. We have the ability to shut Metro down, and we’re not afraid to use the authority we have,” Mr. Foxx said. “This is serious business.”
Federal transportation officials already know part of the problem: Metro has spending, planning and union issues, as would any single public agency the size of Metro, which has 13,000 workers.
But Metro has another problem: It has been hoodwinking Mr. Foxx’s agency.
Metro’s own Office of the Inspector General in a May 2014 report laid bare some of the agency’s spending problems and lack of accountability as they relate to labor. In short, the inspector general audit found that labor hours were improperly categorized, improperly reported and mischaracterized as capital expenditures and questionably charged to the federal government. (Good conservatives and liberals would be upset that taxpayers were footing such bills.)
The bottom line is that Metro’s internal controls are internally controlling spending, which explains why Mr. Foxx had to throw down the gauntlet.
Now, let’s turn our attention to the upcoming budget year, when we’ll be in the beginning phases of closing rail stations and lines while expecting Metrobus to pick up the slack.
First of all, Metro is starting out $18 billion in the hole, and, again, federal authorities are rightly reluctant to fill in the gap. The potential hole is in the capital budget over the next decade — the very expenditures that cover rail maintenance and renovations, the very problems we have been facing in recent years. Metro’s capital budgets also cover contracts, labor costs, and new rail lines and stations — expenditures that have been made courtesy of appropriations from Congress.
Still, the hijacking also comes via the three regional jurisdictions — D.C., Maryland and Virginia — whose leaders act more like they are partaking in a Three Stooges marathon than the elected officials of a coveted region.
So let’s peek at the 2017 budget, which takes effect July 1.
1) Metro wants to spend more on its maintenance facilities than it does on its rail rehab — $120.4 million vs. $86.7 million.
2) It wants to spend $1.7 billion on operations, such as personnel, labor and benefits. Knowing all the while that state and local governments have to pour tax dollars into Metro’s operations coffers lest they be further short-changed.
3) And the coffers are rock bottom — largely because Metro has long rejected fare increases and because any “extra” money goes to labor. Even the pension roosters are coming home to roost.
As I’ve said before, Metro was not imagined and built to be all things to all people. Something’s got to give, and give sooner rather than later.
We and Congress have been hijacked by Metro and our regional leaders, taken for granted.
Do we really want Mr. Foxx to exercise his due diligence because Metro did not?
This is serious. Because even if Mr. Foxx has only seen the Denzel Washington remake of “Pelham,” he would still to well to follow the money since all Americans are hostage to Metro’s hijacking.
• Deborah Simmons can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.