Arlington, VA

What’s Next with Nicole is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

This week Metro released a devastating budget for FY 2022 in order to balance a $500 million deficit.

In more ways than one this pandemic has continued to exacerbate systemic problems that already exist in our society, and Metro’s budget is one of those evident examples. There are multiple reasons why even with federal stimulus that we will continue to have budget issues for the foreseeable future.

During the pandemic, service cuts already have made it difficult for essential workers. With these proposed “doomsday” cuts to service, those workers will be driven further off the ledge of stability. Shift workers that have hours being cut are having to pay for a $30 round trip Uber versus a $6 Metro trip, and that is unsustainable to continue through July 2022.

Metro has been the core of Arlington’s economic growth over the past several decades and served as a regional connector to our neighbors for commuting and leisure. Ensuring its continued success in not just maintaining, but expanding service to Dulles, is essential for us in providing regional housing supply, attracting businesses and jobs that generate revenues at the state and local level, and providing reliable and environmentally friendly transit throughout the region.

Changing workforce patterns

Even after a vaccine is widely distributed, we are likely to see a measurable shift in commuting patterns. It has been made clear that work from home is here to stay. In Congressional hearings, GSA directives, and indicators from government contractors, we have seen concrete intention to continue expanded work from home policies.

Some $763 million in Metro revenues come from ridership and parking. Twenty-two percent of the D.C. region works for the government and that number is even higher if you count government contractors. We cannot expect that revenue to continue in perpetuity. We need a long term plan to rely less on ridership revenue.

Living on a prayer

“We are going to need federal funding. Eventually we will need to change our tax system to provide more funding, but this year is an election year so that won’t happen. We did increase funding a few years ago and we’re really proud of that.”

The above is a summarized response from our state legislative leadership when I asked about the legislature’s planned response to these devastating cuts at George Mason University’s NOVA Leadership Dinner.

First, Virginia is not paying our fair share of Metro funding as it is. With the new stops, we will account for 31% of Metro stops, but will be paying only 27% of state/local contributions. If we were paying our fair share, we would be paying $73 million more annually to Metro. We cannot rest on our laurels and pat ourselves on the back for taking action a few years back.

Second, it is unfortunate that the reasoning for being unable to make changes to our tax code is that it is an election year. It is election year every year in Virginia. Public transportation is a bipartisanly popular topic and should be considered an asset to any campaign, not a deficit. This cannot be used as an excuse to not get things done.

Third, it is unfortunate that this hasn’t been part of discussions for the upcoming legislative session. While being hopeful that Congress can pass another round of stimulus, nothing can be taken for granted. There is hope for $45 billion in transportation funding from a stimulus bill presented this week by a bipartisan working group, including our own Sen. Mark Warner, but there is no guarantee of how much will be sent to Metro if it were passed. The fact that Virginia, D.C., and Maryland do not seem to be in discussions about how to respond to Metro’s plight as a region is disappointing, particularly with the legislative session coming up in a month.

Reinstituting habits

The timing of these cuts is not ideal. While fiscal planning is needed now, cuts would be implemented in July 2021. If we effectively distribute a vaccine, many hope that the summer of 2021 might see more people going into work and participating in recreation.

This is exactly the time we need our region to be reinstituting habits of taking public transportation. If service is this severely cut, we risk having people turning to cars or rideshare as their preferred method of transportation that would have otherwise been public transit users.

Conclusion 

Metro funding is not just a pandemic problem, it is a systemic problem. Our state leaders should take it seriously this year and for years to come to fix the systemic problems we know to be on the horizon. Continued focus is needed on funding and creating efficiencies throughout the system.

Nicole Merlene is an Arlington native and former candidate for Virginia State Senate. She has served as a leader in the community on the boards of the Arlington County Civic Federation and North Rosslyn Civic Association, as an Arlington Economic Development commissioner, in neighborhood transportation planning groups, and as a civic liaison to the Rosslyn Business Improvement District.

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