Metro jurisdictions, finally heeding DSA, agree to dedicated funding

When in late March Maryland committed to providing Metro with $167 million in annual funding, part of an agreement with the District and Virginia to provide an overall total of $500 million, the jurisdictions had finally provided Metro with what every other major US mass transportation system already has—a dedicated, ongoing stream of revenue.

The agreement on dedicated funding, assuming the three jurisdictions stick to their pledges, will provide the Metro system a critical source of cash for maintaining and upgrading a rail system that has shown its age. It will save the system from having to beg the three jurisdictions each year for funding, which has made it difficult for Metro to make long-term plans for upgrades such as buying rail cars and buses and repairing track.

The push for dedicated funding achieved new urgency over the past several years as the system visibly deteriorated, the low point coming when a rail car filled with smoke near L’Enfant Plaza, causing the death of a passenger. But the idea of establishing a dedicated source of funds dates back at least three-and-a-half decades—and one of its early proponents was the local chapter of Democratic Socialists of America.

In 1984, DC/MD DSA (Northern Virginia then had a separate chapter), in reaction to a proposed Metro fare increase, spearheaded the creation of the Coalition for Fair Transit Finance (CFTF), described in the November/December “Washington Socialist” as “a coalition of community activists, environmentalists, planners, senior citizens, and transit users from Maryland, Virginia and the District.” The idea for CFTF grew out of a DSA meeting in November 1983 in which member Rick Rybeck proposed that the local organize against the proposed fare increase, one of a long string of almost annual increases dating back to the beginnings of the rail system in the mid-1970s.

CFTF’s first priority was to pump up turnout at public hearings that Metro was required to hold on the proposed hike. The coalition spent mornings and evenings handing out flyers to rail and bus riders urging them to attend hearings in their jurisdictions. About 100 attended a hearing in February at Metro headquarters where CFTF representatives denounced the fare hikes. Rather than repeated fare increases, CFTF argued, Metro should establish a dedicated source of regional funding. It argued that the funding should encourage ridership and capture the value created by the system, with possible revenue sources including a sales tax surcharge, a gasoline tax and a property tax on land value created by rail stations. “Freeze the fares!” became CFTF’s slogan.

In the end, Metro did increase fares, but by a smaller amount than it had proposed. In response, CFTF organized a protest at Metro Centerthat garnered substantial press coverage. An article on the demonstration in the “Washington Post” included a photo showing Rybeck wearing an appliance box decorated to resemble a farecard machine that made mock assaults on passersby, trying to nab their money.

Even though Metro raised its fares in 1984, “freeze the fares” became Metro’s policy for the immediate future. An era of frequent increases came to an end, with fares frozen for the next five years. There was little doubt that CFTF’s organizing showed Metro that the public’s patience with ever-increasing fares was at an end.

The dream of dedicated regional funding remained unfulfilled for another 34 years. But the organizing of DSA and CFTF helped inject idea into the conversation, planting a seed that finally bore fruit.

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