WMATA – The Fundamentals

January 6th, 2016

We explore questions about WMATA’s creation and how decisions are made in our “Metro 101” series.

Metrorail groundbreaking at Judiciary Square (December 9, 1969)

Why was WMATA created?

WMATA was founded in 1967 to serve 3 primary functions:

  1. To plan, develop, finance and “cause to be operated” improved transit facilities as part of a balanced regional transportation system;
  2. To coordinate the operation of the public and privately owned or controlled transit facilities into a unified regional transit system;
  3. To serve “other regional purposes” as needed.

How is WMATA governed?

One unique feature of WMATA’s creation and governing structure is the WMATA compact, which provides its legal and organizational framework. Because WMATA’s facilities, and operations span the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia a Congressional-approved “interstate compact”, or multi-state agreement, is required by the United States Constitution (Article 1, Section 10, Clause 3).

The 2015 Board of Directors

The WMATA compact dictates the structure of its Board of Directors as follows.

  • 8 voting members, with 2 each from the compact jurisdictions, or “signatories” (DC, MD, and VA) and the federal government; and
  • 8 alternate members from each of the above entities

Board members are appointed by the DC Council, the Washington Suburban Transit Commission (for MD), the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission, and the General Services Administration (for the federal government*).

Another interesting and unusual feature of the board’s decision making role is the so called “jurisdictional veto.” The compact states that “no action by the Board shall be effective unless a majority of the Board present and voting, which majority shall include at least one Director or alternate from each Signatory, concur therein.” This means that two signatory board members opposing any proposed action (with the exception the adoption of a mass transit plan or plan of financing) can veto the action if they both vote against it.

How is WMATA funded?

WMATA, like most agencies doesn’t collect enough revenue from fares to pay for its operations. However, while most large transit agencies (23 of the top 25, in fact) rely on some form dedicated local funding such as a sales or payroll tax, WMATA generally relies on each of its compact jurisdictions to help pay for the balance of its costs each year.

Fares pay for just over half of WMATA’s combined regional bus, rail and paratransit system, while the local share of operating costs of the regional system is determined by a somewhat complex subsidy allocation formula which uses factors such as population, station location, ridership, service distribution to apportion costs to each member.

Aside from special multiyear federal funding established by the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act (PRIIA), WMATA uses the same allocation formulas for its jurisdictional capital contributions. The PRIIA funding agreement specifies that the federal government contributes half of the eligible annual appropriation ($150M in the FY2016 adopted budget), while the compact jurisdictions pay the other half (DC, MD, and VA each paying $50M in FY2016).

* The recently approved FAST Act federal transportation legislation, shifts the appointment responsibility of federal board members from GSA to the USDOT.

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