Federal, state governments to give Metro $1.5 billion for upgrades

The Metro system could receive some upgrades – including expanded cell phone coverage – thanks to Congress and governments in D.C., Virginia and Maryland.

This month, the Senate passed a bill authorizing $1.5 billion in funding to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority over the next 10 years for various improvements. In addition to the congressional funding, the District, Maryland and Virginia are expected to match these funds by contributing an annual $50 million to WMATA, which will need $11.3 billion to remain operable in the next decade, Metro general manager John B. Catoe Jr. said.

“There is still much to be done, but this is a big step forward,” Metro Board Chair Chris Zimmerman said.

A major part of the plan is to expand cell phone service in Metro stations and on the train itself, he said. Currently, only Verizon Wireless users receive full coverage.

Metro will also use the funds for a “series of refinements” such as fixing aging railcars, leaky tunnels and crumbling platforms.

But it could be years before any new money actually begins flowing into the Metro system. Zimmerman stressed that the bill is “an authorization, not actual funding.” Congress must approve the funding as part of its annual budget in order for D.C. to obtain it.

“It is a good first step that Congress recognizes the Metro’s need, as well as the service (Metro) provides the federal government,” Zimmerman said.

While Metro is the country’s second-busiest rail transit system, it lacks a source of dedicated funding, whereas other cities use a certain percentage of tax revenue to fund their rail networks.

Fares and other revenue from Metro itself account for just over half of day-to-day operational costs. The federal government has also contributed 65 percent of the capital costs of Metro since its inception in the 1970s, according to WMATA.

“Because the D.C. Metro spans two states and the District of Columbia, all with different political systems, it can be difficult to get sufficient funding,” said Hal Wolman, professor of political science at GW.

Although D.C. and Maryland have both already agreed to match the proposed funding, Virginia, which Wolman said is in “difficult fiscal circumstances,” has yet to appropriate money for the project.

Virginia Governor Tim Kaine has vowed that his commonwealth will do its part, however.

Both Zimmerman and Wolman agreed that Virginia will most likely match the funding if it makes it into the congressional budget.

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.