Hogan reluctant to bail out Washington Metro: 'We can't throw good money after bad'

Erin Cox
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
Tax-averse Gov. Larry Hogan questioned giving more money to D.C.'s troubled Metro system.

Gov. Larry Hogan said Wednesday that Washington's Metrorail system must dramatically improve before Maryland will consider providing it with additional tax dollars.

"This is unfortunately a system that appears to have been broken for a long time, with nobody really in charge," said Hogan, noting that Maryland already pays "nearly half a billion dollars" to subsidize the Metro lines that extend into Prince George's and Montgomery counties.

He said the sum — 11 percent of the state's annual transportation construction budget — is drastically out of proportion with the number of Maryland residents who ride Metro.

"At this point, that's about as much as we'd like to spend until we can see some things improve," Hogan said.

However, he would not rule out supporting a new regional sales tax to help rebuild the beleaguered transit system.

The system is facing a $275 million shortfall next year and is considering rate increases and service cuts to help close the gap. D.C. officials suggested this week that it would be better to seek more money from the three jurisdictions served by Metro. Hogan was reluctant to endorse that proposal.

"We can't throw good money after bad, but we're going to continue to invest in things that make sense," Hogan said.

It was a sentiment echoed in less-harsh terms by Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe of Virginia, who appeared alongside Hogan and D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, also a Democrat, at Wednesday's Capital Region Business Forum.

The appearance coincided with the elected officials' first regional summit, at which Metro's troubles became a primary topic.

"They've got to get some things done before they come back and ask for more money," said McAuliffe, referring to Metro's leadership. Paul J. Wiedefeld, a former Maryland transportation official, took over the system late last year.

The Metro system has undertaken an intense, systemwide safety and maintenance project called SafeTrack, which has intermittently closed stations and slowed travel. The project follows years of safety concerns and lackluster service. Revenue has been in decline, and this year ridership dropped by 11 percent.

Bowser said Washington, Maryland and Virginia need to come together to create a dedicated stream of money to resolve Metro's decades of neglected maintenance. McAuliffe and Hogan made clear that they need to see improvements first. McAuliffe said once he saw the improvements, he "will be the biggest cheerleader" for getting the system more cash.

"Let's be clear, don't anyone think that there are any divisions with us," McAuliffe said after an hourlong, closed-door meeting with Bowser and Hogan. "We all love this system. It's a huge economic driver for all three of our jurisdictions. But it's got to be run right."

Hogan, whose surprise 2014 win in heavily Democratic Maryland was built on a promise to roll back tax and fee increases, declined to say whether he would support a new tax for the state's D.C. suburbs in order to keep Metro solvent.

"We just had our first discussion about this today," Hogan said. "We took about an hour to talk about it. We're nowhere near finishing the discussion. A lot of people would be involved in that discussion, so you're not going to get an answer from me today on anything about a sales tax increase."

Later, Hogan spokesman Douglass Mayer said that "the governor has zero plans to support any tax increases, regional or otherwise. … The governor believes in having good working relationships with our regional partners."

The governor also said the state was putting its transportation dollars into fixing existing roads and bridges, and promised a full replacement for the Harry W. Nice Memorial Bridge over the Potomac River in Southern Maryland. Hogan declined to offer a timeline for that project.

Wednesday's summit also produced a compact between Maryland, Virginia and D.C. on how to address a deadly heroin epidemic.

The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments will establish a joint task force to coordinate a regional response to the spike in opioid-related deaths, which have more than doubled in the area in recent years.

ecox@baltsun.com

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