Metro (WMATA)

It's time to talk about a regional tax to help fund Metro, general manager says

"It might be what people don't want to talk about, but it's not news that you need to fund the public services people say they want," Metro General Manager Randy Clarke tells News4

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Metro's general manager says a regional tax should be discussed to permanently fund the transit agency. His comments come as WMATA faces a massive $750 million budget shortfall.

WMATA General Manager Randy Clarke spoke to News4 on Sunday about major questions facing regarding the future of Metro, including potential budget and service cuts, plus what a new arena could mean for the Potomac Yard station.

In a Q&A format, here's what Clarke told us:

On Metro's proposal to address the budget gap:

Last week, Clarke warned of dramatic service and job cuts if WMATA doesn’t close a $750 million budget gap in the first half of 2024. Among the suggestions, stations would close at 10 p.m.; 10 stations would be shut down completely, and nearly half of Metrobus routes would be eliminated, with dozens more seeing service reductions.

News4 transportation reporter Adam Tuss: "Let’s talk budget first. A $750 million budget gap; the biggest one that I've ever covered. And we’re talking about potential stations closing down. The biggest thing I want to know: Are riders going to face some sort of fare increase, do you think?"

Metro GM Randy Clarke: "Yeah, in the proposed budget, we talked about a 20% fare increase. Obviously now, my job as a general manager is getting a proposed budget through the board, the public process, we'll go through that.


Reporter Adam Tuss and the News4 team are covering you down on the roads and in transit.

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"We've been working with all of our jurisdictional partners. The reality is, we don’t have the money to run the service that we are running today, let alone the stuff people want us to do more of. We have a structural issue here Metro's been talking about since 1976.

"Federal COVID relief money kind of bridged this for a few years, but we went through the same thing everybody else did. We had high inflation over the last few years, a drop in revenue from ridership ... and we are a public service; revenue from ridership doesn’t make up the whole budget. We have a misbalance here, and we either as a region got to figure out if we are going to fund the system accordingly, that we all we want it to be, or it's going to kind of collapse and we're going to have a death spiral here and not have this amazing transit system that fuels the DMV."

Metro General Manager Randy Clarke proposed major cuts if Metro doesn’t fill its $750 million budget gap. News4's Joseph Olmo reports.

Does Metro need federal workers back in the office?

Tuss: "Death spiral. No one wants to see that. Do you need the federal government to come back? Was that one of the key drivers as well? ... I am talking about commuting five days a week."

Clarke: "Yeah, we're a unique place, because we have one employer that has so many people, and that’s the federal government. I think that we are seeing more and more federal employees back to the office using Metro. In December, we hit our three highest days of federal employees tapping [into the Metro system]; we can kind of track that. And in January, I think more people are coming back to the office.

"But so, again, we are a public service, right? So whether it's people five days a week, three days a week, every day of the week, it doesn’t matter. We have to value public transit and fund it accordingly, or have a diminished system, and then we have to be honest: We're gonna have impacts to our economy; we're gonna have impacts to equity; impacts to the climate."

Does Metro need some kind of regional tax to be sustainable?

Tuss: "Here's something that everyone always says: Metro is the only mass transit system in the U.S. that doesn’t have a dedicated source of funding, like a sales tax, like a gas tax. Is it finally time, so that you don’t have to go every year to all the jurisdictions and ask for money, is it finally time to have some sort of tax that is specifically going to Metro?"

Clarke: "Yeah, we clearly are one of the only systems that doesn't have it set up this way, and therefore we don't have predictability. We have to have that conversation; there is no getting around it. And whether that's Metro having its own tax, which is like the transit agency I had in Austin that I had the privilege to run — if you went to Atlanta, if you went to L.A., lots of these systems have their own tax.

And then basically the other governments in the area go, 'Good, you need to be responsible for your budget,' and that’s something we want to account for, or the other jurisdictions have to have that tax, that it’s only dedicated to Metro or our transit network and our partners."

Tuss: "Could it be a sales tax, a gas tax?"

Clarke: "Sure, it could be a variety of things. Gas, I don't think is going to be this long-term really smart thing to do, right? Because as we electrify and do other things, it might be a bridge piece, but long term, 30 years from now, we probably are not going to have gas."

Tuss: "OK, so I just want to be on the record here. You are saying it’s time to have a discussion about a tax for Metro?"

Clarke: "Well, there's no question [that] we have to have this discussion. You know, we might have a bridge situation here for a year or two that we're kind of talking about this budget, but then it's really gonna erupt in a couple years because we have the capital conversation, too.

"So everything should be on the table. I think our chair and others have said that as well. We are doing our part to save money, but we have to fund this thing, and whether it’s a sales tax or some other tax, we have to have that conversation here with all of our partners.... It might be what people don't want to talk about, but it's not news that you need to fund the public services people say they want."

Metro General Manager Randy Clarke says the Potomac Yard Metro station as it's built now won't be able to a handle Caps and Wizards crowds if the teams move to the area. News4's Adam Tuss reports.

On the announcement of a planned arena at Potomac Yard:

Last week, Virginia leaders and the owners of the Washington Capitals and Wizards announced a $2 billion plan Wednesday to partner on a deal that would send the teams to Alexandria. But a day later, Clarke said the Potomac Yard station, which opened in May, would likely need major modifications to handle big crowds. With only one escalator and staircase on each platform, the station wasn’t designed with a stadium in mind.

Tuss: "The stadium deal. What's your thoughts? People said you weren't even kind of consulted on this, and now you've got a potential huge stadium at the foot one of your newest Metro stations?"

Clarke: "Listen, I'm not saying the GM of Metro should be consulted. I was just asked the question, 'Were you asked about it and involved in any of the process?' The answer is no."

Tuss: "The governor of Virginia never called you and you never had any of that?"

Clarke: "No. But I am not saying it's something that should have happened, either. We now clearly have to be involved. The station as is will not handle an arena. The mayor of Alexandria has been pretty clear [about] that, and I think others as well.

"My assumption is within a $2 billion development, they're talking about some of that money is for transportation improvements. We clearly have to change part of Potomac Yard station to manage a new arena. And we look forward to working with all the partners on that, if all this comes to fruition."

On two weeks of service changes on the Red Line:

A partial shutdown of the Red Line began Monday and will continue through Dec. 30. Red Line trains are traveling in two segments: between Shady Grove and Dupont Circle, and between Gallery Place and Glenmont. Shuttle buses are running between Dupont Circle and Gallery Place. Metro said the service changes are happening so crews can work to improve tracks and repair tunnels.

Tuss: "All right. Red Line, big shutdown coming up [Monday]. Tell us why it's necessary?"

Clarke: "Listen, I feel really bad for our customers, any time we do any type of impact, but this one here — we have a structural issue in the original tunnel around Farragut North. We have to get in and fix that. If not, one day we won't have a Red Line. .... And so we never want to get into those catastrophic situations. We gotta get in; we've got to get as much work done as possible. So the core in the Red Line has not had a shutdown like this in like 30 years. So we know it's a bad time."

Tuss: "You know there’s a Madonna concert [Monday], right?"

Clarke: "Yeah, my wife was trying to get me to go to the concert. It's a little late for me since I go to bed early. But it is the time of year when we have 40% reduced ridership. And that's why we're doing it [now]. So our goal is to get in, get the work done safely, and now we have a great Red Line for decades to come. And we all move forward and just continue to drive this reliable, safe system that we have here."

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