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McDonnell admin. drops another transit funding bombshell

The McDonnell administration has suddenly decided to revamp the way it handles transportation funding, sending Northern Virginia cities and counties into a last-minute and potentially expensive scramble. The reason appears to be politics and a desire to wrest power from Northern Virginia, which is politically not aligned with the governor.

Photo by England on Flickr.

The cities and counties of Northern Virginia have a partnership they say works very well. They pool money they receive for transit, and give it to a state-created entity called the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission. They all have votes on NVTC's board, and NVTC handles distributing money for Metro rail and bus service, VRE, and local transit.

State law codifies many elements of this arrangement, but officials of the state Department of Rail and Public Transportation recently informed Northern Virginia leaders that they were going to unilaterally change it on very short notice. Instead of giving money to NVTC, DRPT would give it directly to WMATA and to each local jurisdiction.

Change is too hasty, very disruptive, say jurisdictions

According to a letter from Fairfax County, Arlington County, the cities of Alexandria, Falls Church and Fairfax, and NVTC's board, DRPT announced this change and, with only 10 days' notice, threatened that they would just take away all of the state funding for the coming year unless the jurisdictions immediately agreed to the change.

This is very disruptive, Northern Virgnia leaders say, not least of which because they already approved their budgets for next year and none of this is part of their budgets. They might need to pay for extra staff to handle the paperwork involved, approve agreements to hand the money back to NVTC, and more, all at the last minute.

There is a lot of paperwork, auditing, and other administrative hassle involved in receiving state and federal money and giving money to WMATA and other transit agencies. Northern Virginia jurisdictions say that having NVTC handle all of this saves them a lot of time and money, especially for the very small cities like Falls Church and City of Fairfax.

They also argue this move might violate state law and interferes with a study going on right now to figure out whether or how to consolidate or modify the constellation of transportation-related associations in the area, each of which represents a different but often overlapping set of cities and counties.

DRPT isn't offering to become the agency "on the hook" for Metro funding; Northern Virginia jurisdictions still will be. DRPT just doesn't want to give the money to the agency, NVTC, which the cities and counties set up to handle this. For example, Virginia jurisdictions have to pay a quarterly WMATA bill on July 1, but DRPT doesn't have the money yet since the state fiscal year begins at the same time, said Kala Quintana, communications director for NVTC. The cities and counties keep a balance of about $90 million at NVTC so that it can front the money and then get reimbursed from DRPT.

Why? Power, it seems

Why is DRPT doing this? DRPT officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but according to the Fairfax County Board meeting's staff memo (page 253), "Director Drake noted that this was being done to ensure that each local government and agency understands how much money it is receiving from DRPT."

This certainly makes the move sound like retaliation for the way Northern Virginia pushed back against the McDonnell administration's efforts to take more power over WMATA for itself and away from the local cities and counties.

When the administration asked to control both voting seats on the WMATA board (and then settled for just one), DRPT argued that the state contributed over half the money for transit. But NVTC countered with a memo explaining how, in fact, most of that money comes from Northern Virginia taxes that the state collects but which go back to Northern Virginia transit by state law.

It has been the local jurisdictions, not the state, which has come up with more money to avoid service cuts during the last few difficult WMATA budgets. This is different from Maryland, where the state government controls WMATA board seats but also pays for transit service out of the state budget. If DRPT were prepared to offer extra money in tough years to keep transit running, that might be one thing, but they haven't yet.

Instead, the McDonnell administration has repeatedly shown that it doesn't really care much about whether transit thrives or withers, and therefore will use transit funding as a cudgel to achieve other policy objectives. McDonnell held the Silver Line hostage to try to keep construction jobs away from union workers, and seemed unconcerned about whether that might scuttle the whole project anyway.

His administration repeatedly pleads poverty on the Silver Line while lavishly funding unnecessary road projects in rural Virginia. It's fairly clear that there's politics at work, just as there was when New Jersey governor Chris Christie killed the ARC tunnel and then, it turned out, lied about the reasons, or when several other governors turned down high-speed rail money or killed local transit projects.

The Commonwealth Transportation Board, a statewide board of gubernatorial appointees, has the chance to pause this bull in a china shop proposal until cooler heads can prevail. They'll review the policy on Wednesday.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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This guy, I swear. I guess one consequence of single-term governors is that they don't have to care if what they propose is anything but power consolidation/red meat stuff. It's perfectly fine to take steps to cripple the economic engine of your state when you don't have to be accountable for it anymore 2 years later.

by worthing on Jun 18, 2012 1:24 pm • linkreport

What makes a rural road project unnecessary? Is it just because somebody who lives in Washington says so?

by Loach on Jun 18, 2012 1:41 pm • linkreport

Loach: Maybe because the people who live in that area say so?

by David Alpert on Jun 18, 2012 1:44 pm • linkreport

I guess McDonald is trying really hard to motivate VA Dems to come up with a reasonable candidate for governor this time.

by Jasper on Jun 18, 2012 1:48 pm • linkreport

Gees. Between this and the UVA fiasco, the VA government has clearly gone rogue.

by movement on Jun 18, 2012 2:37 pm • linkreport

I guess McDonald is trying really hard to motivate VA Dems to come up with a reasonable candidate for governor this time.

Or engaging in a long-term plan to motivate businesses and residents to move to Maryland of DC.

by oboe on Jun 18, 2012 2:55 pm • linkreport

David, would you be in support of the two alternatives to congestion relief on 29 mentioned in that link you provided? Or are those just two more unnecessary rural road project that take money away from transit?

by Loach on Jun 18, 2012 3:48 pm • linkreport


So a Republican administration wants to discourage efficiency in government by decentralizing a body created by local governments to save time and money. Here's hoping CTB does the right thing.

by OctaviusIII on Jun 18, 2012 3:49 pm • linkreport

I am doubtful that adding overpasses on US29 in Charlottesville would work. This would just shift the bottlenecks around and make the other lights back up more. See Rt. 28 at its various phases of development as an example. I believe parallel roads would help by keeping local traffic away from 29 unless 29 itself must be crossed. We're seeing this in Alexandria and South Arlington now.

by movement on Jun 18, 2012 4:04 pm • linkreport


Its not that the rural road projects don't have merits per se but it's rather.

1. It exposes a dissonance in the governor's rhetoric that "he's business minded and not afraid to make tough cuts" when it seems like the only projects that are in danger from the governor are the ones in northern va. rather than the ones he's fast-tracking in other areas.

2. ROI matters especially with transpo. dollars limited as they are. We have to ask which projects will have the greater impact and move more people. In that light, then yes the projects in the crowded areas (not just Northern Va. but Hampton roads as well).

Its northern Va. with the traffic problems so they should get first crack at traffic solutions.

by drumz on Jun 18, 2012 4:08 pm • linkreport

When he finds out the Columbia Pike Streetcar program is counting on 15% state funding he is going to pull that money faster than you can say vibrant froyo!
And good for him for once.

by Mary-Austin on Jun 18, 2012 5:31 pm • linkreport

ms Austin

I thought you claimed that development would proceed just the same without the street car as with. In which case the same vibrant street life, including frozen yogurt, should appear.

I would pay more attention to the folks suggesting the street car would have no impact on development, were they not also as opposed to development as they are to the street car.

does anyone suppose that the state's contribution to the street car can be placed in a fund for heavy rail development in arlington or elsewhere in NoVa?

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jun 18, 2012 5:36 pm • linkreport


The dissonance is also that the Gov. claims is biggest focus is creating jobs, particularly in Science, Tech, Engineering, Math but the 29 bypass will do nothing to create STEM jobs. As opposed to the Silver Line which provides the infrastructure necessary to continue creating thousands of STEM jobs in Tysons.

by Falls Church on Jun 18, 2012 5:37 pm • linkreport


Yes that is what I said. All of that stuff is coming anyway and is already here in many cases. The generic new taverns, the fake "taquerias" are already popping up despite the lack of a streetcar. They will continue to do so whether the thing is built or not.
My point is that Richmond may very well decide they don't want to spend $40-50 million on a trolley to make Arlington look cute. And a fund for heavy rail in Northern Virginia??? Not sure what you're talking about but the point of this article is McDonnell and conservatives don't like funding these types of projects and certainly not in Arlington.

by Mary-Austin on Jun 18, 2012 6:56 pm • linkreport

I don't spend time in taverns so I am no expert in how generic they are or are not, I will defer to you. I'm glad bicycle shops are springing up. I've eaten at the Salsa Roo and it was quite good, I'm not sure what was "fake" about it. Of course the idea is to spend the money to focus development where it will be denser and so reduce green house gas emissions and other impacts. I suppose an admin that, according to the WaPo will not use the words "sea level rise" when dealing with the problems facing Norfolk, is hardly going to care about that.

If they don't fund projects that will help NoVa's future, NoVa should consider that in 2013.

I continue to suspect that the majority of street car opponents DO believe that the street car will stimulate development, and they oppose it for precisely that reason.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jun 18, 2012 7:47 pm • linkreport

Clarification on the 29 Bypass issue in Charlottesville (and yet another example of the problems with Sec of Transportation Connaughton's policies):

1) Charlottesville and Albemarle's proposed alternative -- Places29 -- is a comprehensive strategy that was analyzed and shown to work. It involved creating a local street network to get thousands of local trips off of the main stem of Route 29, a couple of urban/ped friendly grade separated interchanges where needed and development changes that reduced growth in traffic. It not only addresses the through traffic issue but also directly addresses the vast majority of traffic that is local.

2) The "bypass" in contrast will not fix or reduce the local congestion problem and also dumps all of its traffic back into an area with more strip sprawl and traffic lights.

3) For those worried about getting to Lynchburg, the bypass might only save a few minutes, which will be undermined by more traffic lights in Albemarle, Greene and Madison Counties.

4) Local groups have offered a more effective corridor-length solution that includes protecting the throughput of Route 29 by ending the chopping up of the highway for strip malls and local street networks in the towns along the corridor (offering an alternative to short trips on 29), and more.

by Stewart Schwartz (CSG) on Jun 19, 2012 7:48 am • linkreport

Punitive, indeed. It's the old "divide and conquer" trick again. The Nixon Administration did the same to public television in its infancy because they detested "liberals" like Sander Vanocur. Instead of funding the PBS network directly, they switched the funding route so money was sent directly to the stations. Ever since, PBS has had to wrestle with stations for "dues" money to operate the network. And now McDonald's gang slyly attempts to disaggregate transportation funds the same way. Good luck getting all those recipients to agree on anything.

by John Fuller on Jun 19, 2012 8:20 am • linkreport

[Deleted for violating the comment policy.] At no time was the Silver Line threatened except here on GGW performing as 'chicken little'.

The Governor won that round and GGW censored the Fed study showing cost overuns, corruption and insider contracts on the Silver Line. Those of us who did take time to read it can be happy the Governor stood up for taxpayers and Virginia law.

[Deleted for violating the comment policy.] Union workers are not owed any jobs...this is a Right to Work of 24 I believe. Jobs are more plentiful in Right to Work states and joblessness lower. That's what a leader does...enforce the laws and create jobs.

[Deleted for violating the comment policy.]

by Pelham1861 on Jun 19, 2012 5:57 pm • linkreport


At no time during the Nixon Administration (1969-1974) did the President's party control either House of Congress. The set-up you speak of was via Democrat led legislation. I think the outcome [deleted for violating the comment policy] is that local communities throughout America have strong, imaginative and innovative PBS stations. Isn't that a good outcome?

by Pelham1861 on Jun 19, 2012 6:02 pm • linkreport

To PELHAM1861:

I beg to differ. I refer you to The Nixon Administration Public Broadcasting Papers, 1969-1974 [FOIA] reproduced at from which I quote Clay Whitehead (1971): "No matter how firm our control of CPB management, public television at the national level will always attract liberal and far-left producers, writers, and commentators. We cannot get the Congress to eliminate CPB, to reduce funds for public television, or to exclude CPB from public affairs programming. But we can reform the structure of public broadcasting to eliminate its worst features. There is, and has always been, a deep division within public broadcasting over the extent of national control versus local station control . . . We stand to gain substantially from an increase in the relative power of the local stations. They are generally less liberal, and more concerned with education than with controversial national affairs. Further, a decentralized system would have far less influence and be far less attractive to social activists. Therefore, we should immediately seek legislation to: (a) remove CPB from the business of networking; (b) make a drastic cut in CPB's budget; and (c) initiate direct Federal operating support for local stations on a matching basis."

Memoranda to this effect continued until 1974, just before Nixon resigned. Whitehead wrote President Nixon on April 2: "The object was to gain support for a restructuring of public broadcasting to decentralize funding and programming decisions by emphasizing the role of local stations. We have achieved such a consensus and have a bill awaiting OMB clearance, which provides for: [excerpts]

1. long-range funding over a five-year period without annual appropriations but with oversight;

3. a mandatory pass-through to the local stations of a substantial portion of the Federal match (at least 50 percent by FY 80), to decentralize program control and minimize the network character of the system

This reauthorization bill included not just the decentralization requirement but also something the industry had longed for: Multi-year funding. On July 16, the legislation was submitted to Congress.

The Administration's objective was not to spur "strong, imaginative and innovative PBS stations." That was a smoke screen. It was to stifle the "liberal evils" of national production.

by John Fuller on Jun 19, 2012 10:02 pm • linkreport

What good does it do to put projects and regions against each other as Richmond and the governor are so often accused of doing and vilified for?

by selxic on Jun 20, 2012 7:27 am • linkreport

@ selxc to correct a misallocation of resources - how can you do that if you don't identify it?

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jun 20, 2012 9:09 am • linkreport

Please don't give me a link to the NY Times article about Chrisitie's lies, instead provide a link for all to see that the ARC tunnel was diverted to no where.

The costs for the ARC tunnel were taken from the toll payers that are only to go to fund the Garden State Parkway and Turnpike. The previous Governor (Corzine) stuck it to the commuters of these roads to build the tunnel to no where.

I can agree that Governor Christie is now taking the money from the toll payers, borrowing more money, and offering a tax cut. But please, do not tell me that the ARC tunnel was a good project by the time Christie stepped into office.

I urge you to read this

[Deleted for violating the comment policy.] You could find real items to put up against Governor Christie, rather than the bias NY Times article which does not tell the true story.

by You Lie! as Joe Wilson would say on Jun 20, 2012 1:36 pm • linkreport

This is actual agenda item from the CTB meeting.

I don't see anything about this issue on it.

In other news, it looks like the CTB approved another 150 milluon for dulles rail.

by charlie on Jun 21, 2012 3:23 pm • linkreport

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