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About Matt Holt

A self proclaimed sports and hip-hop expert with a passion for American politics, Matt Holt really enjoys talking about himself in the third person. Follow me here for my thoughts on everything from the Premier League, why Macklemore sucks, and everything in between.

The Washington DC Metro Has A Funding Problem With No Clear End in Sight


 

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Metro Riders and organizers gather at the Festival Center for the People’s Metro Budget Forum on November 30th. (Photo by Matt Holt) 

By Matt Holt

On March 27th, 1976, Metro began its service on a 4.2 mile stretch between Farragut North and Rhode Island Avenue. Nearly 51,000 passengers rode free that day. President Lyndon B. Johnson commissioned the construction of the Metro as part of his vision for a “Great Society,” directing planners during the early stages to scour the globe for design concepts so that the new system can “take its place among the most attractive in the world.”

Now the third-busiest subway system in the country, the 41-year old system is also among the youngest in the nation. Still, a host of problems plague the system. Maintenance issues, service disruptions, management and safety lapses along with extended rail closures means a decrease ridership. The three municipalities that Metro services — DC, Maryland and Virginia — have to negotiate with the federal government in order to obtain funding. Between the three municipalities, the only dedicated source of revenue that the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) can bank on are the people that ride the system every day.

Metro’s Safetrack program was a major disruption to ridership. Intended to complete three years worth of maintenance and construction in a year’s time, all lines of the system at one point experienced either single-tracking or complete closures. The subsequent loss of ridership has only hamstrung Metro even further.

Ray LaHood, a former congressman and Secretary of Transportation, was hired by Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D-VA) to independently review the finances, management and operations of WMATA. The highly anticipated report was leaked and obtained by the Washington Post in November is the most thorough independent review of WMATA in years, and will set the benchmark for a vigorous debate of how Metro can become adequately funded.

The centerpiece of Lahood’s proposal is the five-page cover letter detailing his seven findings and six recommendations to improve Metro, including $500 million in new capital funding. The study also calls for Metro’s 16-person board to resign, and in its place, a 5-person board with the sole purpose of reforming WMATA.

 

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“The agency’s board is too large, too fractious, and too oriented towards the interest of the region’s individual jurisdictions rather than the needs of the region as a whole,” LaHood’s report says. “This is not the fault of the people currently holding seats on the board; these issues pre-date them and will persist after they leave unless something is done.”

Another finding was that Metro offers more service per rider than other large transit agencies. The report urges that bus fares be increased from $2 to 2.10 — closer to the $2.16 average price of similar size travel agencies. The report also calls for a major overhaul of bus routes, which could save approximately $38 million a year.

LaHood says that current general manager Paul Wiedefeld is the best person to lead WMATA. “Since coming on board in late 2015, Mr. Wiedefeld has not shied away from taking on the problems that have plagued WMATA for years,” the report says. “He is the right person for the job at hand.”

Although LaHood stated a number in the report that he says will be adequate funding — $500 million — he did not mention a mechanism that would bring that money into WMATA. He mentioned that in 2008, Congressional approved nearly $1.5 billion over 10 years in special WMATA funding under the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act (PRIIA) to be matched by local funding. The report cites that nearly 40% of rush hour ridership are federal employees and that this gives the federal government a “special responsibility to help WMATA succeed.”

In the report, LaHood says that he is not proposing a specific method to raise the funds because of the “many different arrangements that would work,” noting that the different jurisdictions that WMATA serves make things complex when it comes to funding.

“Each of WMATA’s funding partners will need to play a role, and each can generate its share in a way that makes sense for them,” the report says. “The methods can be different so as long as the key criteria are met: the total is sufficient, the funds are dedicated, and they arrive soon.”

Malcolm Kenton, a passenger rail specialist who studies transportation trends around the country, agrees that dedicated funding is the biggest issue plaguing WMATA.

“Metro is unique among U.S. transit systems in not having a dedicated regional source [of funding], and having to go hat in hand not knowing how much you’re going to have in your budget year after year,” Kenton said. “Going hat in hand to Congress, to the Maryland legislature, the Virginia legislature, and the DC Council for an appropriation. And they can’t count on the same thing every year.”  

“The Metro is crumbling,” he continued. “Meanwhile, we have brand new, glamorously paved highway systems that are just way too congested. A properly funded and functional Metro is really important to this region.”

Kenton was one of the handful that attended “the People’s Metro Budget Forum” on November 30th. Metro riders got together in Columbia Heights to voice their concerns about the system they use every day.

People from all walks of life came together to discuss what Metro needs to improve on. Students, parents with their children, union members from ATU Local 689 — the union that represents many Metro workers, and organizers came together at the Festival Center in Columbia Heights. Organized by the Save Our System coalition under the umbrella of Americans for Transit, organizers led a discussion about Metro’s next budget, Ray LaHood’s proposal to improve Metro, and what can be done to make Metro rider’s voices heard.

David Thurston, an organizer the Save Our System coalition, started the meeting by talking about how expensive it is to get around the city.

“It costs me nearly 60 bucks a week to get around,” he says. “I could get around much more cheaply in New York City.”

He went to talk about Metro’s riders — most of whom he considered not to be rich.

“Metro is used mostly by working-class people,” he said. “It should be affordable for working-class people. It’s critical for working-class people to get around their own city.”

Organizers ran a workshop where participants would take a look at Metro’s budget. Emmelia Talarico, a senior organizer of the Save our System coalition, facilitated a group conversation about Metro and informing riders what has been happening with WMATA.

Talarico started the discussion by reminding the crowd that Metrobus fares have climbed from $1.75 to $2, 33 bus routes are being eliminated or are having their service reduced, and that there’s no been late service for two years.

The lack of late service has hurt a lot of people, organizers who led the discussion say. Ale Ja Cinto, an organizer with the coalition, moved to DC and worked in the service industry, and the lack of Metrorail or Metrobus service at night made things very hard.

“When I got here, I was very broke and had to work late nights in restaurants,” they said. “And I couldn’t get home. I couldn’t even afford to get home. It was too expensive. I tried to crash on friends couches from time to time, and sometimes I found myself in situations I didn’t want to be in just because [the Metro] wasn’t open.”

Cinto got involved with the Save Our System coalition when he saw local organizers begin to push back on WMATA in a forceful way.

“My disgust and unhappiness about the system has gone back a long time,” they said. “

Talarico, who ran the forum, said that the lack of transparency was one of the biggest issues facing WMATA.

She described how Metro actually has two budgets: a capital budget, which funds maintenance and upkeep, and the operating budget, which funds day-to-day activities.

“A lot of people don’t know how to read the Metro budget, and I can’t blame them — some of these terms are really confusing,” she said to the group.

When asked about Lahood’s proposal to fix the Metro, Talarico did not seem to think that the proposal was a big deal, instead focusing her attention on the next Metro budget.

“When Ray LaHood held a town hall for his proposal, we came with a full set of proposals and he proceeded to ignore every single of one them,” she said.

At the event, Talarico was distributing a proposal to fund Metro called a “Transit Assessment District for WMATA,” a report by Peter Donohue of PBI Associates. It states that DC has nearly $1.7 billion dollars of tax revenue that is held up in tax-exempt, U.S. owned properties that could help solve WMATA’s funding woes.

“This proposal is the best I’ve seen so far,” she said. “We really need funding for our system. We can’t go on like this for much longer. We’ll continue to organize until we have a system that works for everybody, and that is affordable to everybody.”

“I believe public transit is a human right,” Cinto added. “People should be able to afford to get around in the city where they work and live.”

A WMATA spokesperson could not be reach for comment but pointed to an October 26th press release, where Metro GM Paul Wiedefeld proposed no fare increases or service cuts for riders. Wiedefeld proposed a combined operating and capital budget of just over $3.1 billion for FY2019 (beginning July 1, 2018) that requires an increase of $165 million over last year’s level of jurisdictional funding support.

“This proposal builds on our success in investing capital to deliver projects that improve safety and reliability, which is critical to winning back riders,” said Wiedefeld in the release. “This budget also doubles down on management cost controls to ensure we have squeezed the value out of every dollar that we spend delivering service to the region.”

Senate Committee Unanimously Approved Banking Sanctions Against North Korea

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The Senate Banking Committee convenes to unanimously approve further sanctions against North Korea. (Photo by Matt Holt)

By: Matt Holt

WASHINGTON — The Senate Banking Committee unanimously approved sanctions against North Korea, taking aim at financial institutions that assist Kim Jong Un’s regime.

“This bill sends a clear message to the world that the entire U.S. government is committed to the strongest possible sanctions against North Korea,” said Senator Pat Toomey (R-PA), a cosponsor of the bill.

The Otto Warmbier Banking Restrictions Involving North Korea (BRINK) Act targets foreign banks, including China and elsewhere in the world, on the eve of President Donald Trump’s first official visit to Beijing.

The bill was named after an American student who died earlier this year after being imprisoned in North Korea, escalating the already strong tensions between the two countries. It targets companies, bank accounts, and other private businesses used by the North Korean government to finance their military operations.

The bill will also require Congress to review the effectiveness of the sanctions, and allow states and local municipalities to divest from any corporations or firms that are involved with the regime.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), the ranking member of the committee, praised the bipartisan effort to hinder North Korea’s escalating aggression.

“Members of the committee have over a number of months, and over a bipartisan basis, forwarded legislation that cuts to the heart of the North Korea regime,” Brown said. “By targeting economic resources that Pyongyang elites crave and that Kim Jong Un needs to stay in power to achieve his nuclear ambitions, we remain deeply concerned about North Korea’s advancing nuclear capability and advanced technologies to deliver these weapons of mass destruction.”

An amendment to the bill authored by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) included provisions to hinder human trafficking offenses committed by North Korea.

“[Human] traffickers make over a $150 billion dollars every year in illegal profits,” Warren said. “But human traffickers aren’t hiding those profits under the mattress. Access to the banking system is crucial to these traffickers, and it has to stop.”

Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-ID), said that the government is just “starting to apply the pressure that can have an actual impact.”

“No matter how strong our sanctions may be, their still just one tool in the toolbox in dealing with North Korea,” he said. He went on to urge the Trump administration to take further action against Kim Jong Un’s government.

“I’m troubled by the disjointed efforts and the contradictory messages coming out of different part of the administration,” he said. “I think it’s essential that we have a coherent, comprehensive strategy guiding our efforts on this.”

 

Kris Schneider, the U-Pass Advocate

By Matt Holt

 

WASHINGTON, D.C. — When Kris Schneider arrived at American University to begin his freshman year, he was surprised to find out that public transportation was not subsidized by the school.

“Coming from the New York City metropolitan area, knowing that public transit is so vital to college students and high school students to get around, I was actually really surprised to hear that we didn’t have something similar,” he said. “That’s just kind of standard.”

Schneider is currently serving as the Secretary of the AU Student Government, a position he’s held since October of his freshman year. However, his most proud accomplishment during his time at AU was his work advocating for the U-Pass, which gave students unlimited rides on Metrorail and Metrobus during the school year.

At the beginning of the Spring 2016 semester, former student government president Sasha Gilthorpe asked Schneider to be the student representative on a forming committee to explore the idea of a partnership between the University and WMATA to have a “University Pass” program.

“It was already in the works when I joined the team,” he said. “But they didn’t know what it would exactly look like, how much it would cost, what the exact parameters would be. But the idea was already there.”

A fee of $130 would be added to tuition in exchange for free unlimited rides on Metrorail and Metrobus. Students voted overwhelmingly in favor of the U-Pass, with 85% of students voting year in the March 2016 student referendum.

Although the majority of students who voted in the referendum were in favor of the U-Pass, Schneider is aware that some students were not in favor of the program.

“Most of the complaints were that [the U-Pass] acted like a tax,” he said. “People were asking why are we adding this mandatory fee? I don’t take Metro, I don’t live off campus, I never plan to live off campus, I don’t have an internship. And these are all valid questions.”

However, Schneider will continue to advocate for the U-Pass because he believes that it helps enhance the student experience at AU.  

“It’s more than an internship, it’s more about living off campus and having to get to campus, it’s it’s kind of going into what the University’s central mantra is,” he said. “We’re in a laboratory for learning. Washington, D.C., is part of our classroom, and that’s something we tried to emphasize a lot during the referendum period and as we were rolling out the actual program.”

“This isn’t just for the students who take the initiative to get an internship, this isn’t just for the students who want to move off campus and want to experience DC living life,” he went on. “This is for a professor to be able to say we’re going to go to a museum today, and removing the barrier of the cost to get there.”

For some classes, professors send their students into the city, and for Schneider, removing the cost of that assignment was important.

“At minimum, it would probably be 6 or 7 dollars round trip. That’s a meal. Or more than a meal. We wanted to emphasize that professors are going to do this anyway, and in fact, this is going to make professors more comfortable and enable them to do more outings like that,” he said.

The U-Pass program was renewed for the 2017-2018 school year, but the program is in still in the pilot phase.

“When it was announced in April that the U-Pass was being renewed, the student response was overwhelmingly positive,” he said. “And I think they covered it in Eagle Summit more than they did in the past for incoming students because it’s getting institutionalized now. Like, this is something that you’re going to get. This is a benefit of attending AU.”

“So the next step is going to be talking with Metro, talking with the university about making this an institutionalized, permanent program that will continue to benefit students now, next year when I’m a senior, and down the road. It’s not a question anymore that this is something that goes along with being a student at American University and going to school in Washington.”

Going forward, Schneider will advocate for the expansion of the U-Pass to include faculty and staff, as well as an option for students who stay in DC over the summer.

“When I was interning in DC over the summer, as soon as the U-Pass deactivated for the summer, I immediately felt the impact,” he said. “Spending seven dollars a day on the Metro adds up. Students should be able to opt into a summer U-Pass program. That’s something that we’re looking at going forward.”

REVISED — Fractured Continent: Former WaPo Foreign Editors talk Merkel vs. Putin and the future of Europe

Hoagland and DrozdiakFrom left to right, Bradley Graham, owner of Politcs and Prose; Jim Hoagland, Foreign Columnist for the Washington Post; and William Drozdiak, author of Fractured Continent: Europe’s Crises and the Fate of the West. (Photo by Matt Holt)

By Matt Holt

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Jim Hoagland recalls the first time he met William Drozdiak. Drozdiak’s European basketball career was coming to a close, and he came to Hoagland looking for a job at the Washington Post.

“He came into my office in Paris in 1977 wanting to try out a career in journalism,” Hoagland said. “I thought he had the stuff to be a good journalist.”

Hoagland, who served as foreign editor for the Post and now serves as a columnist, turned out to be right. Together, the two men have six decades worth of experience reporting from Europe, and on Tuesday night they led a discussion at Politics and Prose, promoting Drozdiak’s new book Fractured Continent: Europe’s Crises and the Fate of the West

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Hoagland said the American policy “was to create a Europe, whole and free.” Drozdiak’s title selection suggests that hasn’t happened.

“My favorite part about this book is that it shows the importance to Americans of what happens in Europe, and the importance to Europeans of what happens in America,” Hoagland said.

One way Drodziak does so is by outlining a common enemy between Europe and America: Vladimir Putin, the Russian prime minister.

Both Germany and the United States fell victim to Russian Hackers, Drozdiak said. America saw the Russians meddle in the 2016 general election, and Germany’s Bundestag, or parliament, suffered a data breach. Russians also saw an attempt to breach the French election fall short.

Russia’s aggression, according to Drozdiak, stems from their leader, prime minister Vladimir Putin.

“And now we see the resurgence of an aggressive, belligerent Russia, taking revenge and trying to reverse history, as Vladimir Putin said,” Drodziak said.

Russia has developed something Drozdiak calls “hybrid warfare.”

“Their ability to spread misinformation, which we call fake news, through social media, allows them to disrupt societies without firing a single bullet,” he said. “It’s not going to be overwhelming numbers of tanks or nuclear weapons that determine superiority in warfare,. It’s going to be cleverness and nimbleness because in a way, this form of asymmetric warfare has been adopted by Russia in its dealings with the West.”

When the Berlin Wall fell and the USSR dissipated, Drozdiak was the foreign editor for the Washington Post, giving him a front-row seat to German reunification and the rise of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. “I think, and I think a lot of people would agree, that Angela Merkel is the now the most prominent and respected democratic leader in the world,” he said.

“I think, and I think a lot of people would agree, that Angela Merkel is the now the most prominent and respected democratic leader in the world,” he said.

Drozdiak built a relationship with Merkel when he worked on the American Council on Germany, and Hoagland said it’s apparent throughout the book.

“When you’re done reading the book, you’ll realize that no journalist knows and understands Merkel like Bill Drozdiak,” Hoagland said.

Merkel has a deep appreciation for the United States, Drozdiak said, and remembers visiting California during her childhood.

“When East Germany was finally liberated and [Merkel] could finally travel, the first place she visited was the cliffs of La Jolla, and she has fond memories of looking out at the Pacific Ocean,” Drozdiak said.

Drozdiak told the crowd that Merkel is deeply committed to a Europe with open borders, but she’s facing an anxious Europe with a growing refugee crisis, all while Russia is menacing from the East.

“Merkel has been put in a very difficult position. Germany is still very uncomfortable about exercising power, and the fact that it is the dominant country in Europe,” he said.

Drozdiak compared both Putin and Merkel, who’ve been instrumental in the revival of their countries. Merkel, Drozdiak says, is methodical in their decision-making, so much so that in Germany, they’ve turned her name into a verb.

“In Germany, to ‘Merkel’ is to procrastinate,” he said.

Merkel has built strong relationships with all nine of Germany’s neighbors, Drozdiak said, and Putin has attempted to destabilize all of Russia’s neighbors. Merkel believes her strengths are in her relationships with Germany’s neighboring countries, while Putin believes that he is strongest when Russia’s neighbors are weak.

When facing Russia, it is critical that France is strong and united with Germany, especially with Great Britain leaving the EU, says Drozdiak.

“Merkel has said to me many times that France’s weakness is Germany’s problem,” he said.

Merkel did not get along with the last two French prime minister, but according to Drozdiak, she is hopeful that Emmanuel Macron, the newly-elected French prime minister, will help her provide a united front against Putin, and help push Europe forward.

The state of Europe is precarious, Drozdiak warns.

“There’s a lot of anxiety and uncertainty of what’s going to happen in Europe,” Drozdiak said. “The arrival of Donald Trump has accelerated Europe’s belief that they have to take destiny into their own hands.”