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WMATA funding crisis forces strange alliance between Alexandria and Gov. Glenn Youngkin

Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin speaks at the announcement of a new arena for the Washington Wizards and Capitals in Potomac Yard in Alexandria, Dec. 13, 2023 (staff photo by James Cullum)

It’s a classic trope, from the epic of Gilgamesh to the Fast & Furious: two enemies or rivals have to team up and put their differences aside to tackle a bigger threat.

Like some of the best odd couple pairs, Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin and the mostly Democratic City of Alexandria have had some pretty public feuds, but the Potomac Yard arena and connected Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) funding could make for strange bedfellows.

In a recent newsletter, Mayor Justin Wilson noted that Youngkin has signaled that he could be an ally in Alexandria’s push for greater Metro funding.

According to the newsletter:

As the General Assembly works to address this challenge, Governor Youngkin has now signaled his support for increased state funding for WMATA in conjunction with approval for the North Potomac Yard Entertainment District proposal.

Addressing this financial gap will require collective action across the three state governments, its local jurisdictions (including Alexandria) and the Federal Government. This type of conversation is one that is playing out around the nation, but it will require a series of difficult decisions locally.

Youngkin had previously opposed expanding Virginia’s role in funding WMATA and, earlier this month, said he expects funding to come with the expectation of reforms within Metro leadership — namely driving down costs and improving fare collection.

Metro funding has been a crucial piece of the Potomac Yard arena discussions, with both Wilson and Metro GM Randy Clarke saying the current Potomac Yard Metro station can’t handle the traffic at the proposed arena. Beyond just that infrastructure limitation, the brand new Potomac Yard Metro station was on the chopping block when WMATA was reviewing stations to close due to budget cuts.

State Sen. Adam Ebbin described increased funding to Metro as a ‘prerequisite‘ to any discussion of the new Potomac Yard arena.

Even as city leaders say the new project will be reliant on the Metro for transportation, WMATA faces a possible death spiral with a $750 million shortfall.

“With the presentation of a sobering budget, the WMATA staff presented a dire picture of the region’s transit finance in the future,” Wilson wrote. “A combination of relief that had been provided to the taxpayers of local jurisdictions during the pandemic, decreased fare revenue and the impact of inflation and collective bargaining agreements for WMATA’s employees has left a $750 million operating deficit going forward.”

Wilson said the shortfall can’t be addressed with fare increases and service reductions alone, given that both might drive ridership even lower.

While Metro hit a post-pandemic ridership peak at 563,000 riders in November, Wilson noted that’s still less than the average ridership of 626,000 pre-pandemic and Metro’s average ridership is still only half what it was pre-pandemic.

Wilson also noted that nearby localities can’t shoulder the tax burden to compensate for the decline in ridership. Alexandria currently contributes $56.6 million to WMATA’s operating budget and $16.6 million in capital contributions, Wilson wrote.

According to the newsletter:

Addressing this financial gap will require collective action across the three state governments, its local jurisdictions (including Alexandria) and the Federal Government. This type of conversation is one that is playing out around the nation, but it will require a series of difficult decisions locally.

Transit is essential to our region’s economy and our quality of life, but the financial model that has supported its existence for a generation is upside down. The work ahead requires defining a new model to sustain transit for another generation.

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