Metro Shutdown Highlights Risks of Democratic Transportation Autopilot Formula Proposal
By Mark Uncapher
In an unprecedented move to protect Washington Metro riders’ safety, the entire transit system was closed for a day last week in order to conduct emergency inspections of electric cables. This had to be done, since a rash of fires, fatalities and other breakdowns has raised concerns about the 40-year-old rail system’s continued capacity to deliver safe, reliable service.
Currently the Metro Rail fares cover only a portion of its operating expenses. The system is completely dependent on its parent jurisdictions for paying any capital costs. Without state support, the necessary money would not be available. Few events better highlight the importance for policymakers to have enough flexibility to adjust budgets based on changing circumstances than Metro’s new woes. The shutdown also underscores the folly of prioritizing new mass transit projects at the expense of maintaining existing transportation infrastructure that is undergoing continued deterioration.
Yet a Maryland Democratic proposal, HB 1013, attempts just the opposite approach. The “Maryland Open Transportation Investment Decision Act” would establish a formula of metrics intended to restrict the ability of Governor Hogan and the Department of Transportation to set capital project spending priorities. Among the Democratic scoring systems’ flaws is that “system preservation” gets little weight. Consequently, projects to repair or replace structurally deficient bridges – or aging mass transit systems such as Metro – receive a lower priority. This over weighting of new projects results in critical safety issues not getting required or needed attention. Therefore, drivers on aging bridges and roads and Metro riders are placed at risk.
Supporters cloak HB 1013 with claims about “taking politics out of the budget process.” Yet the bill’s formula would produce skewed results. For instance, had this bill been in effect a year ago, Anne Arundel County alone would have lost out on over $170 million in projects, Baltimore County would have missed out on $39 million in projects, and Howard County would have lost out on $133 million. Under the scoring process there is no special weighting given to projects identified as county priorities. At a result, it throws out the ability of counties to set local priorities for transportation projects. For example, the bill would hurt BWI and Baltimore’s Port because the scoring process steers dollars away from transportation projects benefiting economic development.
On the other end, Montgomery County’s projects could receive nearly $3.5 billion because their current priority projects fare so well under the Democrats’ scoring scheme. Yet despite the extra dollars targeted for Montgomery County, the benefit to most county residents remains fairly limited. The projects benefiting the most from the scoring system are new mass transit projects. Consequently, more popular transportation priorities, such as fixing Washington Metro or addressing I-270 congestion would get less attention.
Under Governor Hogan and State Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn, all of Maryland, including the suburban and rural areas, is getting money for desperately needed projects.Just this year Governor Hogan has invested an unprecedented $2 billion into “shovel ready” infrastructure projects to fix every single structurally deficient bridge in the state, and to move us forward on the top-priority road projects in every single jurisdiction in the state.
Metro’s shutdown last week highlights the potential risks of imposing budgetary formulas to lock in government spending on long-term “auto-pilot” systems.State education spending formulas have evolved to severely limit the ability of current leaders to respond to current needs. Placing still more state spending on autopilot, especially using flawed metrics, defies common sense government.