Housing Complex

Sure Would Be Nice if WMATA Had a Bank

Infrastructure banks are all the rage these days. President Barack Obama has proposed one for the federal government that would help fund both big interstate projects and smaller local initiatives. Governor Bob McDonnell is pushing to create one for Virginia that would be capitalized by the privatization of state liquor stores and (probably) pay mostly for highways. Gaithersburg-based developer Bob Buchanan told me this week that his 2030 Group of real estate tycoons thinks Maryland should create one too.

Long term, these all seem like generally good ideas: Leverage private capital to either make outright grants or just finance credit for projects that won't directly turn a profit, but which are necessary for economic growth. The only problem is, the Washington area's transportation system–as the 2030 Group points out like a broken record–is a regional transportation system. And the most critical piece of that system, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, has no dedicated, long-term funding source.

I'm not incredibly well-versed in the intricacies of how WMATA funding works. But I do know that it's constantly vulnerable to political brinksmanship, and requires the negotiation of relatively short-term agreements on capital improvements. I also know that there's a lot to be improved upon in the next 100 years, if the political will existed to make Washington's mass transit system the best in the world.

Here's the problem with current initiatives: A national infrastructure bank would likely send some funding Washington's way, but there are a ton of competing priorities around the country. And banks confined to the surrounding states would likely focus on projects that benefit their own taxpayers, rather than the region as a whole. It would seem to make more sense to create one with a similar purview to the Council of Governments that could invest in the future of WMATA, as well other projects that support the goals laid out in the Region Forward 2050 framework, which so far doesn't have a financial strategy to match.

Please, someone either tell me why this is a bad idea, or if it's a good idea, how it could work.

Fantasy metro map by flickr user thisisbossi.