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Citing Financial Progress, Congresswoman Norton Says Metro Deserves A Break

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Metro has begun to restore confidence in its finances, says D.C. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, and deserves more freedom from close federal oversight.
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Metro has begun to restore confidence in its finances, says D.C. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, and deserves more freedom from close federal oversight.

D.C. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton is asking federal transportation officials to start off 2016 by giving Metro a break.

In a letter to the Federal Transit Administration, the Democratic legislator asked the agency's acting administrator, Therese McMillan, to loosen restrictions on Metro's ability to withdraw federal grant dollars that pay for capital projects to rebuild and maintain the rail system.

The restriction has been in place since early 2014 after an FTA audit determined Metro bungled billions in federal money. The normal process of quickly drawing down the necessary federal grant dollars was replaced by a time-consuming ordeal of submitting reimbursement paperwork in advance rather than electronically. As a result, Metro has been forced to borrow close to half a billion dollars in short-term loans to pay its contractors and employees who perform the rebuilding work.

As a new year begins, Norton contends, Metro has begun to restore financial confidence and deserves less restrictive monitoring.

"I think they made enough progress so that there should be some different kind of monitoring," Norton says.

The FTA is reviewing Norton's request to revise the form of financial monitoring in place, according to a spokesman, but the agency is not ready to entirely lift it.

"FTA shares the goal to remove WMATA from restricted drawdown. However, the restricted drawdown will remain in place until WMATA demonstrates — and FTA can verify — that its internal controls and processes support proper grant reimbursements," an FTA spokesman says.

To buttress her request, Norton referred to the recent approval by Congress of transportation funding as an opportunity for Metro to take advantage of an "unusual infusion" of federal dollars.

"I was able to get a 25 percent increase in federal transit funding for the District of Columbia, most of which will go to WMATA for state of good repair capital projects," Norton says. "In addition, working with regional Members, we got the full $150 million capital spending restored."

Norton also praises Metro for taking a number of measures to straighten out its finances including complying with specific recommendations issued by the FTA in its 2014 report.

"WMATA submitted its 2014 audit this August and will be submitting its 2015 audit in the near future," Norton says.

Mort Downey, the current chairman of the Metro board, agrees that the transit authority deserves a reconsideration of the tight restrictions imposed by the FTA.

"We have made a lot of progress and I know we are working with FTA. They have given us a path forward toward lifting the restriction perhaps in incremental steps, but they shouldn't do it until they are comfortable," says Downey, whose time as board chairman is coming to a close.

Downey's possible successor, D.C. Council member Jack Evans, the current chair of the Metro board's finance committee, agrees that Metro has earned an opportunity to have fast access restored to federal grant money.

"The problem arose when Metro got sloppy and was not keeping all the requisite backup papers, and when the audit was done and this was discovered, then Metro was put on this program where it had to file manually," Evans says. "I believe that has been rectified."

The D.C. region's transit authority — which runs the second busiest subway system in the U.S. — took another step toward restoring financial confidence when it belatedly submitted an audit of its fiscal year 2014 finances and received a positive review from the FTA.

"We got the audit done, albeit not on time," Evans says, "and I have been assured we will not ever be late again."

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