2016 | Transportation

Incoming Sen. Van Hollen Says More Federal Aid to Metro Contingent on Reforms

But new member of Appropriations panel more upbeat about increased NIH funding

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Chris Van Hollen

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U.S. Sen.-elect Chris Van Hollen, D-Kensington, who will be sworn into his new job Tuesday, will sit on two committees—Appropriations and Banking—with jurisdiction over funding and policy affecting mass transit.

But Van Hollen, the first Maryland senator from the Washington,D.C., suburbs in a century, in a recent interview downplayed hopes that increased federal aid for the embattled Metrorail system is a possibility in the near term.

In 2008, as a member of the U.S. House, Van Hollen worked with another Maryland Democrat, Rep. Steny Hoyer, and a Virginia Republican, then-Rep. Tom Davis, to devise a 10-year authorization that provides a $150 million annual federal capital subsidy to Metro. That is on top of aid that Metro receives for capital costs through nationwide legislation that funds roads and mass transit systems.

“The first job is to make sure we keep what we’ve got, which is the $150 million per year,” Van Hollen told Bethesda Beat. “It cannot be taken for granted. That’s a battle every year in the House. It has not been so much a battle in the Senate, partly because Sen. Mikulski has been there.” Van Hollen’s predecessor, Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who retires Tuesday after 40 years on Capitol Hill, has been a long-time member of the Appropriations Committee.

Van Hollen noted another battle is likely when the 10-year authorization for that funding expires in 2019. The money was part of an agreement with the jurisdictions in which Metro operates—the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia—in which the federal government was given greater oversight over the Metro system in exchange for the financial contribution.

“It’s difficult enough to get the federal government to maintain its $150 million contribution,” Van Hollen said. “Any consideration of additional funds will require that the Metro system becomes more accountable, has a long-term plan, and comes to the table with dedicated funding from the local jurisdictions.”

He continued: “…The challenge is that the Metro board has been pretty dysfunctional and Metro’s had a whole slew of safety problems that are well-documented. They’ve got a lot of management problems.” Referring to Washington-area legislators, Van Hollen did say that “most of us have confidence” in Metro’s general manager, Paul Wiedefeld, “who’s come in and tried to apply some leadership” since his hiring in late 2015.

Van Hollen was more upbeat on a fiscal matter of major significance to Montgomery County and the regional economy: funding levels of the Bethesda-based National Institutes of Health. As a result of the $6.3 billion CURES Act, signed this month by President Obama and aimed at increasing research into cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, Van Hollen said NIH “hopefully will get about $2 billion more per year,” an increase of more than 6 percent for a NIH budget that now exceeds $32 billion annually.

“Now, it’s not a sure thing,” Van Hollen cautioned of the prospective $2 billion hike. “We’re going to have to work to make sure that money is added in, and not a substitute for money we’re already receiving. So we will have an on-going discussion, with the Republicans primarily.”

Van Hollen’s appointment to Mikulski’s slot on the Appropriations Committee will give him a key role in determining annual discretionary funding for the numerous federal agencies in Maryland—including the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Montgomery County, the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Prince George’s County, and the headquarters of the Social Security Administration in suburban Baltimore. There is also the Bethesda Naval Medical Center and five military installations around the state, including Andrews Air Force Base, the Aberdeen Proving Ground, Fort Detrick, Fort Meade, and the Patuxent Naval Air Station.

“You have five military bases. A lot of people don’t think of Maryland that way,” Van Hollen noted. “I do want to emphasize that these are important domestic and national missions. But obviously, they are also important to our regional economy. If you look at federal expenditures of goods and services, Maryland ranks in the top five nationally along with big states like California and Texas.” Also in the top five: the District of Columbia and Virginia.

Van Hollen also noted that Maryland ranks in the top three states in terms of per capita federal government expenditures. “And that does not include federal employees,” he said, adding that he is preparing for a fight in the Republican-controlled Congress over compensation for the federal workforce—which includes more than 145,000 civilian employees in Maryland alone, and a total of 520,000 in the Washington region.

“There’s a real danger ahead that Republicans will pass a budget that beats up on federal employees and cuts their pay in real terms,” Van Hollen declared.

Editor's Note: The third paragraph of this story has been corrected to indicate that the $150 million annual subsidy to Metro from the federal government is to subsidize capital costs, not operating expenses.