January 2011 bag search forum. Photo by Thomas Nephew on Flickr.

A new WMATA rider advocacy group, Metro TAG, has been arguing that the official rider voice, the Riders’ Advisory Council, is “completely ineffective” and has “failed” riders. Has it, and can it be effective?

There is definitely room for more than one rider voice, and it’s great to see riders speaking up through Metro TAG. Meanwhile, the RAC does have the ability to also be an effective force. When it started, in 2006, it did assume this mantle of a strong advocate for riders.

Unfortunately, the RAC hasn’t seized the opportunity in recent years. Whether the RAC is effective or not is up to the RAC’s members and whether they take a narrow or expansive view of their role. Members must be willing to use the RAC’s stature and authority to draw public attention to issues, rather than being content to simply pass resolutions and reports that few will read.

In a WUSA story, RAC chair Ben Ball told reporter Debra Alfarone, “We do a pretty good job of representing the riders in the narrow circumstance in which we are allowed to advocate for riders.”

But who isn’t allowing the RAC to advocate? The WMATA Board could change the RAC’s bylaws or refuse to reappoint members who do things that board doesn’t like, but it very rarely refuses to reappoint members, and only changed bylaws once, at the RAC’s request and not related to reining in the RAC.

Instead, almost any shackles upon the RAC come from its own members’ recalcitrance, not from actual limitations from the WMATA Board. The RAC spends a lot of time mired in internal debates about whether they are “allowed” to do something, or not.

The RAC started out as a strong and independent voice

The RAC spoke up loudly for riders in its early days. In its first year, there were articles in the press about problems with MetroAccess and its contractor, MV Transportation. Member Mary Williams, a MetroAccess rider, suggested a public forum, and the RAC unanimously passed a motion to convene one.

According to Dennis Jaffe, the RAC’s first chair, they ultimately convened two, mid-afternoon and in the evening on the same day. He says, “In between, we arranged for one-on-one and one-on-three meetings between riders and representatives of MV Transportation and Metro’s MetroAccess agency staff, for the purpose of resolving individual complaints.”

The RAC’s advocacy wasn’t popular with the WMATA Board. Jaffe says that board chair Gladys Mack tried to prevent the RAC from holding the forum at all. “I had 8 phone conversations with Gladys Mack, at her initiation,” he wrote. “At one point she said, ‘The Board forbids you to hold a public forum on MetroAccess.’”

But Jaffe told Mack he wanted to respect the RAC’s decision. Before the forum, Mack convened an ad hoc committee on MetroAccess issues, and appointed Jaffe and WMATA Board member Dana Kauffman to chair. Jaffe says that Mack again tried to persuade him to not hold the forum; when he refused, Mack then pledged to send out flyers to 16,000 MetroAccess passengers encouraging them to make their voices heard at the forum.

The ad hoc committee, with the help of transportation experts among its membership, made several recommendations to fix MetroAccess problems, and the WMATA Board ultimately approved the recommendations.

Today’s RAC and WMATA Board take a different view

I served on the RAC from 2009 to 2012 and was DC vice-chair in 2010 and 2011. During that time, I saw the RAC make a difference at numerous opportunities. I also saw RAC members limit their own influence in other ways.

In January 2011 (while I was vice-chair), the RAC asked Metro Transit Police top brass to a meeting to explain their controversial bag search program. Dr. Gridlock and other media outlets covered it. We weren’t successful at halting the program, but were able to shine more light on what’s going on, and bring more criticism to bear, than without the RAC’s involvement.

However, while a few board members agreed with us, the board did not engage with the RAC’s process to anywhere near the level that Gladys Mack did. They didn’t ask us not to hold the forum, but neither did they appoint a committee of both board members and riders.

Maybe that issue wouldn’t have been the right one, but I’m not aware of any joint committees of board members and riders at any time I was on the RAC. Board members would show up at RAC meetings when invited, and speak about their thoughts, and would very occasionally meet individually with members, but that was the end of it.

While the RAC during my tenure held a few public forums to push WMATA on key issues, more often the members would spend long stretches of meetings debating whether it was appropriate to take any kind of action. They would fret about the group staying within its own lane.

That problem seems to have only worsened since. When I was on the RAC, I wrote on Greater Greater Washington about what we’d learned in meetings, about the 7000 series rail cars, bus stop design, track work schedules, and NextBus performance. But earlier this year, when chair Ben Ball drafted a few articles for Greater Greater Washington summarizing a report the RAC created on airport bus service, members raised questions about whether it’s even appropriate to have articles in blogs. Months later, they passed a resolution to form a committee to develop a policy on the issue; I haven’t heard anything back about this.

While it was frustrating to spend a lot of time with Ball on articles which then never ran, this isn’t about Greater Greater Washington. The RAC can only be effective in advocating for riders if it speaks out, loudly. That should include posting on Greater Greater Washington but also contacting reporters about stories and placing op-eds in many other media outlets.

The RAC needs to be more visible and less fearful

It should also use social media. I’ve heard that WMATA board staff told the RAC it couldn’t have a Twitter account of its own. It’s a ridiculous limitation. It would be interesting to see what would happen if the RAC simply went ahead and created one anyway, as Jaffe might have done.

The same goes for the RAC website, which does a very poor job of communicating anything about issues or rider concerns. When I was vice-chair, the officers asked staff coordinator John Pasek, who maintains the website, to make a few very small improvements that would help people find reports, letters, and resolutions. He did this for a few months, but then reverted back to the old and more opaque format.

But it’s not just, or even primarily, a staff issue. Members themselves were reluctant to even list bios and photos about themselves on the site, as some said they hadn’t expected to have any public exposure when they were appointed. Pasek, who primarily screens applications for membership, clearly isn’t mainly looking for members who will be visible public advocates for riders. Maybe this practice arose in response to Jaffe’s outspoken advocacy.

The RAC has long struggled with a question of whether it is just a focus group, where staff show up, present on a plan, hear from a representative cross-section of 21 riders, and “check a box” where they can tell the board they consulted riders. In its earliest days, members didn’t see it that way, but as a strong and fairly independent voice for riders.

It can be that again, if members are willing to be such and if board members ensure that they appoint people with that interest. So far, that’s not happening, and Chris Barnes and Kurt Raschke are probably right when they say the RAC has failed riders. But RAC members, without the staff’s or board’s help, could turn that around tomorrow, if they want to.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. 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.