Metro turnaround a top priority for area Congress members




By Amanda Iacone

WASHINGTON — After a tumultuous year for Metro, local members of Congress have no plans to ease the pressure on the transit agency’s leaders.

Members from D.C., Virginia and Maryland include the struggling public transportation system among their top priorities for 2016.

“We can’t be complacent and let the current system continue,” said Rep. Barbara Comstock, R-Virginia. “We have to see changes and consequences and accountability.”

Area lawmakers helped push through a $150 million annual contribution to Metro through an omnibus that will keep the federal government working into September.

The year-end spending bill also secured a higher commuter benefit that covers up to $255 a month for riding Metro and could help boost dragging ridership.

Local delegation members met with Metro’s new general manager, Paul Wiedefeld, in November and they expect a status report from him by June.

“(I) made it very clear to him how critically important we thought getting on top of the challenges that confronted Metro was to the confidence of riders, making sure that riders continue to use (the) system, and to make sure that it is safe,” said Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Maryland, the House minority leader.

He and Comstock both want to make sure that the federal money is used effectively.

Hiring qualified safety employees is also needed to improve safety and change the mindset at Metro, said Sen. Mark Warner, D-Virginia.

But the attention won’t just be focused on Metro’s leadership, Warner said.

“We have to keep the pressure on in terms of all of the jurisdictions who have to work with Metro to make sure that the radio communications are working efficiently,” Warner said. “And, hopefully at the end of the year, we’ll say that this was the year that Metro got its act together, turned itself around.”

Securing support for another $150 million for Metro in 2017 will top Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton’s goals for the year.

But Norton, D-D.C., believes it will be easier to convince Congress to provide the money now that a new general manager has been hired. She hopes that lawmakers are realizing that an idled Metro system can also disrupt the wheels of the government, as almost half of riders are federal workers.

“Metro is America’s Metro line, not the region’s Metro line,” Norton said. “If you close down Metro or do not fund Metro on the kind of continuing basis we started this year, you will in fact be shutting down the federal government itself.”

In addition to Metro, college affordability and workforce training are at the top of Warner’s priority list. He’s introduced legislation that would help would-be college students and their families determine how much debt to expect, the likelihood of finding a job in their career field and what those jobs might pay, before taking out any loans.

He’d also like existing student loan-payers to be able to refinance at interest rates as low as 3 percent and to limit repayments based on a graduate’s income. Changes to the tax code could allow businesses to help pay down existing debt for employees. Such an option could help retain workers and ensure they have the skills to match the needs of a changing economy, he says.

“If I had the kind of outrageous amounts of student debt that many of these young people have right now, I probably wouldn’t be sitting in the Senate. I probably wouldn’t have been successful in business,” said Warner, who co-founded the cell phone company Nextel.

He also wants to protect workers who seek the flexibility of next-generation service companies such as Airbnb, Uber and Postmates but who lack protections including unemployment insurance, disability or workers’ compensation.

“We have a real opportunity to here to think about re-imagining what the social contract is going to look like in the 21st century,” he said.

Regarding national security, Warner believes that Congress should authorize military force in Iraq and Syria to combat the Islamic State group instead of relying on a post-Sept. 11 authorization. He would support the authorization, but says the U.S. must also continue to build a coalition of regional partners to fight the armed group.

“Congress needs to get on record and tell the American specifically how we’re going to go after the bad guys,” he said.

Tax reform tops Hoyer’s to-do list in 2016. He wants to create a more equitable tax code with lower rates, which he says would boost the economy and expand job opportunities.

The Maryland Democrat says that both Democratic lawmakers and President Barack Obama are willing to work with Republicans to bring a tax overhaul bill to the floor for a vote.

And he believes there is enough support to pass immigration reform this year. Hoyer wants the House to consider a bill passed out of the Senate that would address the nation’s immigration system, or to craft its own alternate bill. Taking no action won’t fix the problem, he said.

After the legislative successes of December under the new leadership of Speaker Paul Ryan, Hoyer is hopeful that bipartisan bill-wrangling will continue in 2016. Ryan has pledged to operate more transparently and inclusively.

“I’m hopeful in fact that in fact he can do that. I’m hopeful that a deeply divided Republican Party will allow him to do that; they did not allow John Boehner to do that,” Hoyer said.

Also on Hoyer’s plate will be conditions for federal workers. He wants to protect employees from additional pay or benefit reductions and to ensure their livelihoods aren’t threatened by another shutdown.

Lawmakers in December were able to secure a one percent cost of living increase for federal workers, who have lost ground in the last few years due to stagnant wages and benefit changes.

“National security issues are going to be front and center throughout this year. We know the threats aren’t just overseas,” said Comstock, who chairs a subcommittee on technology.

Comstock wants the government to make long-term investments in cyber security, including researching and developing new safeguards. Such investments could help defend against cyberattacks, but also protect federal workers’ personal data and offer job growth and business growth opportunities in Northern Virginia, she says.

Comstock will also target heroin addiction this year. She wants to make sure treatment is available to those who are addicted to the powerful opiate, in addition to law enforcement efforts to combat the illegal drug.

“Prevention is the biggest issue here. It is not a drug you ever want to be anywhere near,” she said.

The drug is cheaper than prescription opioids such as oxycodone, but offers the same high. And deaths from heroin overdoses have jumped in Northern Virginia in the past several years.

The District’s delegate to Congress will be working on legislation to curb the distribution of lab-created synthetic drugs similar to Spice and K2.

The drugs are difficult for lawmakers to target because manufacturers can easily tweak the chemical formulas and skirt the law.

In an effort to combat the rise of the drugs’ abuse, D.C. passed emergency legislation last summer to target businesses that sell the drugs, and in August the District began testing samples from patients and those arrested in order to determine what type of drug they took.

She also plans to keep working to protect D.C. home rule especially on the matter of gun control.

And she plans to continue working to reduce noise created by air traffic heading to Reagan National Airport, which she says is increasing.