What will Metro really cost Loudoun? If county officials know, they aren’t saying
Chairwoman of the Board of Supervisors Phyllis Randall (D-At Large) indicated last week she had been given “real and honest numbers” on what Metro would cost going forward -- numbers she said would be impossible to pay for Loudoun and other jurisdictions.
But despite her provocative statement, Randall isn't disclosing any figures, nor is Ralph Buona (R-Ashburn), county administration or Metro (WMATA).
Loudoun will officially join the WMATA (Metro) compact when the transit system arrives in Ashburn in 2020. At that point, the county will be expected to contribute funds for annual operating and capital costs.
As of September 2016 -- well before Randall's statements last week -- Loudoun’s share is estimated by county staff at more than $11 million annually.
Over the last week, Randall and others familiar with the new figures have suggested the current estimates are well above the $11 million mark, possibly double.
“The numbers are startling, and they are concerning,” Randall said last week.
When pressed, she declined to provide a ballpark figure.
Buona, who voted in favor of opting in to Metro five years ago, said since 2012 construction costs, the tax district responsible for paying for Metro and the price of building Metro have remained relatively unchanged.
What has changed, Buona said, are the annual operating and capital costs. Buona said he's been briefed on the costs, but he too wouldn't release specifics.
The Ashburn supervisors said it was “premature” to release the numbers because they were too “fluid.”
“What I will say is that the amount that we think we’re going to have to pay annually is substantially higher than back in 2012 when I voted for Metro,” Buona said. At that time, it was estimated the county would pay anywhere from $20-$25 million per year once Metro arrives in Loudoun.
Metro's $3.1 billion budget proposal for fiscal 2018 carries with it a nearly $300 million operating shortfall.
That shortfall, WMATA officials say, was caused in part by expense growth, a declining ridership as a result of service issues, the transit system’s year-long SafeTrack maintenance program and “other factors,” including an increase in telecommuting, low gas prices and more transportation options.
Metro says a fall in ridership has also “significantly” reduced fare revenues.
From fiscal 2017 to 2018, the jurisdictional funding for capital costs in D.C., Maryland and throughout Northern Virginia have shot up between 90 percent to more than 200 percent.
The city of Alexandria saw the highest jump. In 2017, the proposed jurisdictional funding in the city stood at $11 million, but jumped more than 236 percent in 2018 to $37 million.
In Fairfax County -- home to several new Silver Line stops including Wiehle-Reston East, Tysons Corner, Spring Hill and Greensboro -- the jurisdiction saw a 180 percent increase in capital costs. That amount stood at $36 million in 2017 and jumped to $101 million in 2018.
Overall, the jurisdictional funding for capital costs grew by 98 percent.
The fiscal 2018 proposed jurisdictional operating funding ballooned from $866.5 million in 2017 to now $997 million.
The City of Alexandria, Arlington County, the City of Fairfax and Fairfax County saw the highest increases in operating funding, growing anywhere between 17 to 21 percent in just a year’s time.
Where does Loudoun stand?
When the Board of Supervisors voted 5-4 in 2012 to remain in Metro's Silver Line plans, they agreed to fund a proportionate share of construction of the Silver Line, build at least three parking garages at the two Silver Line Stations and fund the annual operating and capital costs as members of the WMATA compact.
Loudoun’s funding commitment for construction of the Silver Line extension was set at 4.8 percent, or $274 million, both the overall project. At the time, the construction costs had been set to come out of the federal TIFIA loan program through the U.S. Department of Transportation; non-TIFIA debt; and the newly established Metrorail tax district around the forthcoming stations in Ashburn.
To date, the county says it has used $83 million from its TIFIA loan to pay for construction costs, which it will start paying interest on in fiscal 2019 and principal payments in fiscal 2023.
In 2014, the Board of Supervisors approved a capital improvement program budget that included $130 million in revenue bonds for building the parking garages at the Silver Line stops.
To pay for Metro’s annual operating expenses the county will pull from several sources: the Metrorail service tax district, otherwise known as the Silver Line small area; local gas tax revenues; and, if revenues are not sufficient to cover costs, from the general fund or “another funding source.”
First-term Supervisor Ron Meyer (R), the current Broad Run supervisor, thinks the previous board negotiated a “bad deal” in bringing Silver Line into the county.
Meyer, who has voiced general support for Metro's extension into Loudoun, worries it will be difficult for the county to afford the “burgeoning costs” of Metro “without doing something more than what we have in place.”
“My goal would be not to raise taxes on anyone period, but obviously it might not be achievable because of this deal that was signed onto before I joined the board,” Meyer said. “And so we’re going to have to use the smartest means possible to do that.”
Ken Reid, now a Leesburg town councilman, was serving on the Board of Supervisors in 2012 and cast the tie-breaking vote to bring Metro to Loudoun. He said he doesn't regret his decision.
“I voted to bring Metro into this county under the guise that it would be paid for by that tax district,” Reid said. “Everything – both the operating and the capital costs of Metro. And if the politicians in this state can’t get their act together to force Metro to operate more effectively and change the compact, then that’s a real problem.”
Dedicated funding source
During Randall’s declaration about the concerning figures, she said Metro needs “dedicated sources of funding” from the federal government and the General Assembly.
When asked if such a dedicated funding source would be possible, Congresswoman Barbara Comstock (R), a member of the House Transportation Committee, told the Times-Mirror Metro’s “increasing costs, poor service, and safety record are unsustainable.”
She noted that it has become clear that “major structural reforms are needed,”which will require “fundamental changes” to Metro’s compact.
The congresswoman said she would continue to work toward getting Metro “back on track,” but did not say whether a dedicated source of funding would be possible.
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