A Different Voice

Ron Utt


The Rail to Nowhere

Tom Davis has engineered the largest Congressional earmark in industry, a subsidy for the Washington Metro, that dwarfs the infamous Bridge to Nowhere.


Congressman Tom Davis (R-VA) has requested that the House of Representatives consider an amendment (H.R. 3496 as revised) to the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (43. U.S.C. 1338) to divert $1.5 billion of federal revenues earned through offshore drilling to subsidize the deeply troubled transit system (called Metro) serving the Nation’s Capital and his Congressional district.


If enacted, the Tom Davis earmark would be one of the largest ever passed -- seven times larger than Alaska’s Bridge to Nowhere and twice as large as Mississippi’s Train to Nowhere.


Mr. Davis justifies taxpayer funding for this local project on the grounds that “Metro, the public transit system of the Washington metropolitan area, is essential for the continued and effective performance of the functions of the Federal Government, and for the orderly movement of people during major events and times of regional and national emergency.”


In fact, Metro provides no such service. Unreliable and poorly run, the system is subject to frequent shutdowns and service interruptions due to equipment failure, bad weather, suicides, driver error and passenger medical emergencies. In mid-June heavy rain and wind caused a shut down on two of its five routes, significant delays on the other three, and the complete shutdown of the two commuter rail lines serving suburban Virginia. While some roads in the area were damaged as well, none suffered the kind debilitating closures and interruptions that Metro did.


As for the essential purpose of getting the federal workforce to its desks, a Metro spokeswoman noted, “Because nearly half of Metro’s daily commuters are federal government employees… delays could be less severe if large numbers of them take advantage of the unscheduled leave option and stay home.”


In other words, Metro’s service can be improved if federal workers don’t go to work. So much for essential service.


But beyond the posturing on behalf of alleged national needs lies a legislative effort whose origins sprang from an act of constituent service, and chief among the constituents being served was the Congressman himself. As originally introduced in July 2005, H.R. 3496 was written to force a resolution of a dispute Mr. Davis had been having with Metro over its plan to sell 3.75 acres of land it owns by a Metro rail station to a developer who wanted to incorporate the land into a large, mixed-use development not far from Mr. Davis’s home. Concerned about traffic congestion and the displacement of suburban charm with urban density, Mr. Davis threatened to do something about it.


While most Americans can only complain about encroaching development, Mr. Davis can use his congressional powers to prohibit it, and the original version of H.R. 3496 was written to do exactly that. Specifically, Section 4 (a) of the bill prohibits Metro from selling the 3.75 acres in question until it has submitted a detailed study of the proposed land sale and the planned development to Congress. But, as Metro has since sold the land to the developer, the legislative prohibition was pointless, and all that remained of the bill was a massive federal bailout of a troubled transit system.


In fairness, Metro confronts serious problems, chief among them being a legacy of mismanagement and high-cost operations, which was covered in excruciating detail in a four part series published in The Washington Post in June 2005. As a consequence of its many operating inefficiencies and the deep subsidies to its riders, Metro is broke and has no funds to add to capacity, replace unreliable rolling stock or make other necessary repairs and improvements. Although it has raised fares twice in the last two years, the increases were modest and well below the cost increases incurred by local motorists because of soaring gasoline prices.


Metro also has avoided opportunities to save money and improve service through competitive contracting, due in part to opposition from its unionized workforce. Thanks to the savings that outsourcing makes possible, virtually all of the newer public transit services added in the Washington, D.C., area are operated by private contractors.


Another troubling aspect of this costly earmark is the regressive nature of the spending policies the bill promotes. Notwithstanding H.R. 3496’s contention that subsidizing the daily commute for civil servants is an essential national need, Washington area workers are among the best paid in the nation. Whereas nationwide the 2004 median household income was $44,684 in 2004, it was $88,133 in Fairfax County, Va., the most populous part of Mr. Davis’ congressional district.


As such, Mr. Davis is proposing an extraordinary exercise in trickle up economics to compel Americans across the country to subsidize the transportation needs of a small slice of one of the nation’s most prosperous communities. As the U.S. Census Bureau reports, only 9.6 percent of Fairfax County residents and 4.2 percent of those in Prince William County, Va., use Metro or another form of transit to get to work.


As troubling as these inequitable transfers are, Mr. Davis’ original bill required that, as a condition of receiving the $1.5 billion federal bailout, all communities in Metro’s service area had to raise their taxes (euphemistically referred to as a “dedicated funding source” in H.R. 3496) to match the federal subsidy. In the communities supportive of the plan, discussions centered on an increase in the sales tax to provide their share of the $1.5 billion, thereby compounding the regressive nature of the limited benefits it would provide a small segment of the area’s population. Although these mandatory matching tax increases are not part of the new amendment, members of Congress should be alert to any last- minute effort to change it and double the proposed taxpayer costs.


While Representative Tom Davis is justified in his concern about Metro’s poor performance as it struggles to serve a small fraction of his constituents, either version of H.R. 3496 would reward that poor performance with a costly taxpayer bailout. Instead, Congress should force fundamental market-based reforms on Metro by linking the continuation of the system’s existing federal subsidies to reductions in operating costs, improvements in service and an aggressive program of competitive contracting similar to the successful reforms implemented elsewhere. In recent years, Denver, San Diego, the Washington D.C., suburbs, and London, to name just a few, are among the communities that have given up on the socialist transit model by implementing aggressive contracting programs.


-- July 24, 2006









This column was published July 17, 2006, and circulated widely by the Virginia Institute for Public Policy shortly before the vote by the United States House of Representatives on an amendment to the Deep Water Energy Resources Act. The House passed the measure.


Ronald D.   Utt is Senior Research Fellow for the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation where he conducts research on housing, transportation, and the federal budget.


View his Heritage Institute profile here.