Photo by Tancread on Flickr.

A WMATA board committee yesterday approved minimum service standards for Metrorail of 15 minutes peak and 30 minutes off-peak. Spokespeople have been irritated that bloggers and the press wrote about this before hearing all of the facts at the presentation. But because the board’s public input process is so broken, there’s no other way for riders to have any say in important policies.

Michael Perkins, Unsuck DC Metro, and some others noticed this proposal when it appears in the board agenda online earlier in the week. Michael posted about his fear that even though this didn’t mean Metro wasn’t about to cut service, it could make it easier to cut it in the future.

Was this accurate, or not? WMATA staff refused to comment further, saying that the proposal hadn’t yet been presented to the board.

At the meeting, performance officer Andrea Burnside insisted that these rules are just setting an absolute lower bound, not a target for everyday service. Michael had talked about that in his article, but it doesn’t really change the situation; setting a target that’s very low and too easy to meet can drag down expectations in the future. Perhaps responding in part to feedback from riders and blogs, federal member Mort Downey asked that the standards be tighter for regular service, though they’ll remain undefined.

Last night, spokesperson Dan Stessel emailed Michael to suggest that it would have been better for us to wait until after the presentation, on Thursday. It doesn’t appear that anything was wrong in our initial article, but moreover, this misses the point. If Michael and Unsuck and others had waited, the board committee would have approved the policy and never heard from riders about the issue.

Public input process is broken

WMATA’s board procedures put riders in a catch-22. Many board members want to hear about a proposal first; after all, they’re the board. But when they hear about the proposal at a committee meeting, they then give feedback to staff, and often approve the policy right then.

Committees comprise the entire board, so all members have had their say and voted; approving it at the official “regular board meeting” is then just a formality. The board recently reorganized committees so they only have a subset of members, but other interested members can always attend a meeting, and the committee meeting remains the most important venue for policy discussions.

When do riders get to speak up? Before the presentation, there are only a few days to review the online board packets, and WMATA actually recently shortened the lead time on most presentations from 6 days to just 2 or 3. Some presentations don’t go online beforehand at all.

Plus, it’s hard to understand a policy just from the powerpoint. It doesn’t have all the information, and isn’t packaged around being understandable to the public. Bloggers and the press often write about the proposals anyway, but they don’t have all the information, and WMATA staff often refuse to talk about the proposals because they haven’t gone to the board.

After the presentation, though, it’s largely too late.

There are better ways

Other agencies have better processes. Yesterday, for instance, the National Capital Planning Commission also got a presentation on a plan for the L’Enfant Plaza area. But the purpose of the presentation was to brief the board and then issue the plan for public comment. Board members didn’t vote on it or ask staff to make changes, they just got a briefing. They will then discuss the plan in more detail later, after residents have been able to read it and weigh in.

WMATA could easily do something similar. Make the presentation, and don’t even necessarily post the powerpoints online, but then have a period for public comments. The board would have to avoid giving guidance or taking a vote at that meeting, and bring the issue back later.

Alternately, staff could issue proposals in a more packaged way for comment, before board members see it, and give riders a chance to speak up before it goes to the board. The board members could get an electronic copy first, but they would have to recognize that this means they will hear about proposals before they get a formal presentation.

The Riders’ Advisory Council’s 2010 report on WMATA governance (whose committee I chaired) recommended a “clear and accessible public input process,” and a task force of DC, Maryland, and Virginia transportation officials echoed this recommendation. So far, the WMATA board has not addressed this issue.

Until they do, riders will feel shut out, and bloggers and reporters will have no choice but to write about policies based on limited information in a way that annoys WMATA staff. That’s too bad, because there’s an easy fix.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Surface Transit. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions here are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.