Comstock leads bipartisan, bicameral Metro safety letter

U.S. Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-VA) led a bipartisan, bicameral call on Wednesday for the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) to release federal transit funds that have been withheld from Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C., since February.

The FTA announced in February that it would withhold federal transit funds for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) because of insufficient efforts to develop a State Safety Oversight Program (SSOP) to succeed WMATA’s Tri-State Oversight Commission.

Comstock led a letter to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao stating that the $8.9 million in initial withholdings, which will grow to $15 million by the end of the fiscal year, will impact broader infrastructure maintenance in the three affected areas, in addition to the WMATA.

“The FTA has withheld transit funds since February 10 —- a date set forth by the previous administration — because a Metro Safety Commission has yet to be been put in place,” Comstock said. “The letter makes the case by pointing out how arbitrary and unreasonable the FTA deadline was from the outset and demonstrates the progress being made in setting up the Metro Safety Commission. The legislation approving of the Metro Safety Commission is moving through Congress.”

Comstock was joined in writing the letter by the state’s two Democrat senators, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine.

The letter notes that the FTA’s decision to withhold funds has created uncertainty for state and local governments’ budget planning efforts, and states could be forced to cut state-of-good repair efforts or limit service to communities if withholding continues.

“We agree safety must be a top priority, but eliminating funding for infrastructure repair would directly contradict SSOP’s stated goal,” the letter states. “Given the FTA must engage in this process with 29 other transit agencies nationwide by 2019, we appreciate the complexity of the issues that were considered in making the decision to withhold these funds.”

However, both the timing of the notice and the deadline set by the FTA were arbitrary, the letter said, and did not factor in the legislative calendars of the General Assembly in Virginia or Maryland.

“The FTA timetable effectively gave Virginia and Maryland less than one full legislative session to negotiate amongst each other and the district, draft the proposal, navigate it through the respective lawmaking bodies and sign it into law,” the letter states. “The unreasonable requirements FTA put forth were not simply for the SSOP to have a legal foundation by the February 2017 deadline, but to have the program fully certified by FTA, which necessitates months of work after passing legislation….”

Comstock’s letter concludes by urging the Department of Transportation to work with the FTA to explore a compromise that would allow withheld funds to be released in response to a show of good faith for the Metro Safety Commission to establish an SSOP.