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Washington Metro Mini Summer of Hell

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), the operator of the Washington, D.C., metro system, has endured several years of delays and disruptions as it attempts to maintain the system's physical plant and improve its safety operations. It may be the most glaring example of infrastructure underinvestment existing right under the noses of Congress.

Now it’s embarking on a three-year capital project with dedicated capital funding recently approved by legislatures in Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia. It does not include any federal money, once again reinforcing our emphasis on the trend of states and localities moving forward despite federal legislative inertia of infrastructure. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) may have said it best when he said: "This is what happens when we fall decades behind on maintenance — commuters bear the brunt of the inconvenience when it finally comes time to dig out the backlog."

The project will reconstruct the outdoor platforms at 20 Metrorail stations to address structural deficiencies after decades of exposure to the elements. At many of these stations, temporary measures have been installed to stabilize the platforms to ensure passenger safety until reconstruction can take place. It is estimated to cost between $300 million and $400 million.

Like last summer's major capital project at New York's Penn Station, this project will entail major service disruptions. Rebuilding platforms is heavy construction activity that requires tracks to be taken out of service to allow for demolishing existing structures, access to the construction area, and concrete pouring. Under the first phase of the plan, beginning next year, Metro is planning to demolish and rebuild the station platforms at Braddock Road, King Street and Eisenhower Avenue stations, resulting in a shutdown of rail service south of Reagan National Airport during the summer of 2019.

Following the 2019 summer shutdown, Metro will reconstruct the platforms at four stations including Reagan National Airport between September 2019 and May 2020. The location and configuration of these stations allows construction to take place while all rail stations remain open. The remaining 13 station platforms will be reconstructed in 2020-2021.

This major project was not without opposition. When we have the opportunity to hear from active players in the field, they tend to highlight the unique nature of transportation and its need for public support. From here, that issue may be the major stumbling block to the timely resolution of the ongoing debate about funding infrastructure which has led to three lost decades in the history of U.S. infrastructure development.

This debate is unfolding in Congress regarding transit funding. DOT's discretionary funding would increase by more than $540 million to a total of $27.8 billion next fiscal year under a House draft spending bill unveiled last week. That would also be nearly $12 billion more than President Trump proposed in his fiscal 2019 budget. (The White House largely crafted its proposal before a two-year congressional deal to hike budget caps.) The fiscal 2018 omnibus included $1.5 billion for TIGER, now called BUILD. The new House bill would fund BUILD at half that level, with $250 million each going to urban, rural and port projects.

So already we are seeing additional uncertainty introduced into the issue of funding. It is discouraging to see this happen as funding is probably the real core issue at the heart of the infrastructure debate.

Streetcars Clearly Not Desired in NYC

Fresh on the heels of the defeat of a major mass transit proposal in Nashville which featured a streetcar component, news out of New York City indicates that the desire for another such plan may not be there either. The much heralded Brooklyn-Queens (BQX) streetcar plan may be running into resistance from the standpoints of demand as well as cost. It was revealed last week that 16-mile streetcar service proposed for the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront is unfunded in the Economic Development Corp.'s proposed budget, suggesting that preliminary planning might not begin for at least a year.

Crain's New York Business reports that underground infrastructure along the potential route has threatened to balloon the $2.5 billion price tag by 40%. It turns out that the city has yet to complete a feasibility study for the project. The city needs to fund preliminary design work and an environmental study. Each would take a year and would together cost $40 million. They are both required before the city could entertain bids from contractors.

When announced, the plan called for construction to begin in 2019. The process is complicated by the fact the city lacks accurate, comprehensive maps of what is under its streets. Instead, engineers have been boring holes along the proposed waterfront route to scope out what over century old infrastructure might be in the way. It is a bit of an embarrassment for a Mayor who has taken the state-run MTA to task for its difficulties in estimating its project costs and executing its capital facilities plans.

Colorado Passes Transportation Plan

In keeping with the trend of states taking the lead in funding infrastructure in the face of federal paralysis, the Colorado legislature passed Senate Bill 1. SB1 dedicates hundreds of millions of dollars to transportation projects. Senate Bill 1 puts $495 million into roads, bridges and alternative transportation this year, $150 million next year then allows the state to borrow $2.3 billion to be repaid over the next 20 years, tapping the state general fund for $122.6 million a year. Only about $50 million a year is new money, with the rest coming from previous legislation and existing tax dollars that go to the state highway department.

The Colorado Department of Transportation says it is in need of $9 billion in the next decade and $20 billion over the next 20 years. Senate Republicans wanted to dedicate $250 million a year from the state budget for transportation and 10% for transit and other multimodal transportation. The final bill takes less than half that from the budget and increases the alternative transportation allocation from 10% to 15%.

The borrowing included in the bill requires the State to seek approval for the $2.3 billion in bond sales from voters. That vote on the bonding initiative would not occur until 2019. In terms of immediate funding, SB 1 allocates $495 in one-time funding to transportation in the fiscal year that begins on July 1, then another $150 million in the 2019-20 fiscal year.

The bonding measure won’t move forward, leaving the $50 million allocation for maintenance of state roads, if voters this fall approve either a sales-tax hike for transportation funding being pushed by the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce or a measure from the Independence Institute that would require the Legislature to set aside $350 million from its general fund each year to repay $3.5 billion in bonding.

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