Leftover capital money could save Metro service
The FTA's slow timetable could free up money to build the H Street streetcar and leave $14-27 million left over. Can the rest of the money benefit WMATA? This is capital money, not operating money, so DC can't simply use it to save transit service... except it can.
DC could give the money to WMATA and flex it to operating by paying for an equal amount of preventive maintenance out of the capital budget as a one-time switch. By doing so, it could essentially count as DC's contribution to added funding.
As it happens, $14 million is about what DC needs to pay to close the $40 million hole in the WMATA budget, and $31 is a bit more than needed to hit the $74 million level and avoid service cuts.
If Maryland can match it, then all three jurisdictions could avoid painful service cuts this year. If Maryland can't, DC and Virginia could at least restore some bus service that doesn't go to Maryland.
Paying extra capital to use for operating is not as problematic as taking money out of the capital budget. No capital projects are being deferred; it's just accounting sleight-of-hand. This is extra, new money that WMATA had hoped to get, but isn't already part of the regular capital budget since it depended on new spending from Congress.
Using it does, however, mean that DC would have to find another way to pay next year, or risk having to cut the service we're trying to avoid now. If DC had made room in its operating budget for the WMATA contribution, it would form a baseline for next year; that's not the case if DC uses this one-time leftover pot of capital dollars. However, it's better than no money and no service, and better than blowing the pot of money on some tax incentive for one single company to move from Bethesda or something.
DDOT could also implement some bus priority measures over the next year to reduce the overall bus operating costs. WMATA estimates that there are about $10 million a year of bus priority savings to be found in DC, which could cover much of the gap, and perhaps the economy will improve enough to add some operating dollars as well.
It would be better if DC could give this money to WMATA as regular capital dollars, matched by federal money, and come up with more money for operating. However, the FTA's timetable means that the money isn't coming this year, and without the federal match, DC, Maryland, and Virginia won't be contributing this set of capital dollars. Using it to save some service as a one-time maneuver is the next best thing.
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