Metro is leaving 'Buy America' rules at the station
© Greg Nash

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Administration is going out of its way to avoid buying American when it purchases its next round of Metro railcars.

Procurement may not be the first thing that springs to mind when thinking about the Washington region’s commuter rail system. Tourists will likely focus on the striking design of its cavernous stations, while locals may be more likely to instead think of a smooth commute on a good day – or a train that blows past a crowded platform without stopping on a bad one.

But procurement is a big deal, even during a pandemic when virtually no one’s taking the train. Hundreds of millions of dollars from the District of Columbia, Maryland, Virginia and, most importantly, the U.S. Department of Transportation are spent annually on Metro’s maintenance. And years of unreliable service and broken escalators has WMATA under constant pressure from rider advocates who hawkishly watch over its direction and expenses to make sure every dollar is well spent.

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Perhaps that’s why the agency is using an accounting gimmick known as “segmentation” to claim the domestic preference rules attached to the federal funding it receives each year won’t apply when it buys its new fleet of 8000-series railcars. Its effect is to limit the applicability of the Federal Transit Authority’s Buy America requirement to only portions of a project, permitting the use of foreign-made materials and products.

While WMATA no doubt will argue that doing so is cheaper, in the long run the quality will almost certainly be worse, and we’ll rob ourselves of the opportunity to use taxpayer dollars to reinvest in American workers and communities.

Transit infrastructure itself is critical to the function of daily life in and around the nation’s capital, but infrastructure spending is an exponentially larger economic engine that reaches across the United States; it pumps billions of dollars into the railcar manufacturing supply chain alone, which employs more than 125,000 workers at literally hundreds of American factories. And they’re more than capable of producing quality cars for WMATA at a reasonable cost.

The federal government’s Buy America rules for transit spending stipulate that 70 percent of the cost of parts are made in America, and thus they direct spending to those American workers. They exist for a reason; virtually every industrialized country on the planet uses them to keep their domestic manufacturing bases vibrant and resilient. And our Buy America rules are especially important now, when unemployment is in the double digits and the economy is in dire condition.

There’s already one company from which WMATA explicitly cannot receive bids: CRRC, a massive rail equipment manufacturer owned by the Chinese government. Congress and the Trump administration objected to awarding such a contract to a state-owned enterprise, raising valid economic and national security concerns. But the ban is only enforceable if WMATA abides by the Buy America rules attached to the federal funding – which is another reason “segmentation” is so troubling.

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There are at least 10 railcar builders still operating in the United States, and more than 750 companies across the country that supply components for them. The last time WMATA bought railcars, it procured them from a factory in Lincoln, Neb., owned by a multinational manufacturer. If another company with a domestic manufacturing footprint were to win WMATA’s contract, it could scale up, expand its operations, and hire more workers.

But WMATA has declared that the approximately $460 million it gets per year in federal transit dollars – not to mention the approximately $767 million it just received in Covid-19 relief funding – will not be spent on this major capital expense. As a result, the railcars Metro will cycle throughout greater Washington for years to come could be made overseas and will likely contain parts made by companies, like CRRC, that function as an arm of the Chinese government.

Suffice it to say, you will never find an American-made railcar in Beijing’s subway system. Or the systems in Tokyo, Berlin, or Paris for that matter.

Without the significant sum of federal money that Metro counts on each year, the rail system as we know it wouldn’t exist. And every single federal dollar spent right now on infrastructure should be maximized to increase domestic employment. WMATA should abide by the rules attached to the funding it receives, and Buy America.

Keep those doors open for American workers, Metro.

Scott Paul is president of the Alliance for American Manufacturing.