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Progressive Voice: A Healthy Metro is Vital to Arlington

by Larry Roberts May 5, 2016 at 1:45 pm 0

Larry RobertsProgressive Voice is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of their organizations or ARLnow.com.

By Lawrence Roberts

I was pleased to join fellow ARLnow columnists Mark Kelly and Peter Rousselot on a panel discussion at “ARLnow Presents: Hot Topics on Columbia Pike.” We had a spirited discussion of County issues and I hope you’ll watch the video when it appears on Arlington Independent Media and ARLnow.

While I don’t often agree with ARLnow’s “The Right Note” column, I was pleased that Mark identified Metro as the County’s highest transit priority.

Metro is vital to Arlington’s economy, serving tourists and providing the impetus for a commercial tax base carrying half of Arlington’s real estate tax burden – a substantially higher percentage than other area jurisdictions.

Metro is also vital to Arlington’s mobility – for commuters to and from Arlington as well as people using public transportation to get around the region without driving. Metro (and other transit options) helps Arlington avoid massive traffic gridlock in its urban corridors and along residential streets.

Today’s federal government could not function without Metro and the ripple effect of reduced federal activity without Metro would be highly detrimental to Arlington companies and workers intersecting with the federal sector.

So what are we to make of this week’s National Transportation Safety Board’s report on the L’Enfant Plaza accident in January 2015 that led to NTSB’s heavy criticism of Metro and, in particular its lack of a safety culture?

I believe that Arlington’s first reaction should be to acknowledge that Metro is essential to Arlington’s economy, its desirability as a place to live, its mobility, and the health of a commercial tax base that supports the many public services that Arlingtonians want and expect, including schools, public safety, parks and social services.

For that reason, Arlington government officials and residents should be at the forefront of efforts to support and encourage Metro as it undergoes necessary changes.

Second, Arlington should be working with our federal delegation and regional partners to demand dedicated funding streams for Metro – as most urban transit systems have.

Essentially, the federal government takes the position that it heavily funded Metro’s construction and that its obligations largely stopped there without ensuring an adequate dedicated funding stream for operations and maintenance.

While federal warnings about safety are important, it is easy to lay blame on Metro management and employees without acknowledging that the federal government has not been a reliable partner in solving the chronic and well known problem of deferred maintenance due to lack of funding.

Metro’s importance to the federal workforce and travelers from across the country who come to the Nation’s Capital warrant strong federal financial support.

Third, we should not fall prey to the convenient and simplistic assertion that if only Metro management had been more disciplined about spending there would be no safety problem. Metro management could squeeze every ounce of waste, fraud and abuse out of the system without making a dent in the structural deficiencies in Metro funding.

Fourth, it is important not to jump on the bandwagon of finding fault with Metro at every turn. I had occasion to review the Washington Post’s 2015 stories about Metro. They constituted a steady drumbeat of identifying one problem after another that would lead one to conclude that no one is able to commute effectively or safely by Metro.

By contrast, I saw few articles about the necessity of fixing Metro’s unsound financial model. There was little coverage of what federal, state and local officials were doing to solve that problem. And almost no stories about Metro’s integral role in our region’s success and mobility or how it serves the needs of many hundreds of thousands of riders every day.

And there were almost no mentions of solving the bottleneck at Rosslyn, where a second station and tunnel are needed to address crowding and lack of capacity/frequency on the Blue, Orange and Silver Lines. These improvements are of particular concern and value to Arlington’s Metro corridors.

Metro management, employees and safety culture can all be exemplary and we would still face ongoing safety, reliability, and crowding concerns without adequately funding operations and maintenance as well as building up funding for necessary capital improvements to the system.

It is easy for federal officials, elected officials, and concerned residents to point out Metro’s flaws. It is harder to acknowledge and highlight Metro’s vital importance to our County and region. And harder still to be at the forefront of the necessary — and unavoidably costly — solutions.

Larry Roberts is a 30-year resident of Arlington and an attorney in private practice. He chaired two successful statewide campaigns and is a former Chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee.

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