Photo by Daniel Lobo on Flickr.

DC’s new transportation director Leif Dormsjo says the region’s transit authority needs to change. This might not sound like shocking news to most riders, but it’s a sentiment many top WMATA officials don’t share or seem reluctant to admit if they do.

Dormsjo and Corbett Price, both appointed to the WMATA Board by Mayor Muriel Bowser, recently spent a day at WMATA learning all about the inner workings of the agency. That experience, he said, gave him a clear understanding about problems at the agency.

“WMATA needs to hire and fire better, manage its capital projects better, follow accounting principles better, and communicate with the public better,” he said.

Not everyone in positions of authority feels this way. Current board chairman and federal appointee Mort Downey, as well as the Gray administration’s board pick Tom Downs, had strongly praised Richard Sarles’ tenure and were looking for a similar transit veteran to succeed him.

Dormsjo thinks WMATA instead needs an outsider who will shake up the culture at the agency. “WMATA needs a CEO,” he said.

Is Metro service good enough?

Bowser has sometimes described her idea for a new WMATA General Manager as a “turnaround specialist.” At a panel discussion Monday, I said I thought the agency does need an outsider, as long as that person understands that change means doing better, not just doing less to cut costs at the expense of riders.

Here’s the audio recording from the panel:

 

Graham Jenkins, who tweets about transit @LowHeadways, agreed that we need more service, not less. He said,

Put simply, there aren’t enough trains and there aren’t enough buses. Frequency is freedom. If you’re in a car it’s very easy to say, “I’m going to begin my trip now,” and get into your car to begin that journey. Transit can only run that way when it runs frequently enough.

The British have a term for it, “turn up and go service.” It means that you can leave and ... be relatively assured that within a pretty short amount of time something will come and you’ll be on your way. But ... our level of weekend service is considered adequate when even without trackwork the headways on Sundays are 15 minutes. It’s commuter rail level of service.

There are certainly many people who work at Metro who don’t like that level of service, but the agency doesn’t have the financial resources to run more. Later, Tom Bulger, a member of the board appointed by the DC Council, seemed to say that rush hour is what mattered to the agency: “We’re only as good as our last rush hour. Sorry Graham, sorry David, that’s how the system operates.”

Jenkins replied,

That’s also the problem with the system. The board seems to have abdicated oversight responsibility. The board needn’t be passive. ... This is the same mentality that Muriel Bowser had when she was on the board and decried that, if this were my railroad, I would change certain things. ... It is her railroad, it is your railroad. You have the power to change things and to accept the status quo passively is why these problems will not go away.

Has WMATA management not been honest?

Bowser indeed did not exercise vigorous oversight of WMATA while she was on the board from 2011 to 2014, but has seemingly moved decisively to appoint people who will now that she is mayor.

Procurement errors under former CFO Carol Kissal led to a scathing report from the Federal Transit Administration and punitive steps where FTA has withheld federal funds and put WMATA in a short-term cash flow crunch. Board members including Bowser and Bulger did not know the extent of this problem until it was too late.

Moderator Pat Host noted that Bowser has said top management was not “honest and forthright with the board about the financial situation of the agency,” as Host described it. But Bulger feels that the board has “enough CFO experience with our current CFO Dennis [Anosike] and the current chairman of the Metro board, Mort Downey.”

He did not seem very concerned with the agency’s current direction. Nor did Jackie Jeter, the president of the union representing most WMATA employees. She said that she worries a “turnaround specialist” would create too much whiplash.

WMATA never gets a chance to run its plan. A couple of years ago Metro came up with a 25-year plan for what it needed to do ... but now that this has happened we abandon that and move to something else. At some point we have to stop this ADHD approach to transportation and actually come up with a program, run the program, and do what is needed.

But as Metro was running its program, its culture of secrecy persisted. Besides not telling even some of their own board members about the financial situation, the message from the agency too often was “just trust us” while anyone who did later felt betrayed. Dormsjo is right that one of the most-needed changes is for WMATA to communicate better — and that’s not just to utter talking points more persuasively, but actually be more open with customers.

In the panel, Bulger said, “It’s hard being on this board when you don’t have partners.” Many riders and advocates want to be partners, but can only do that if the agency treats them like partners instead of children. When it’s even treating its own board members like children, it’s clear something has to change.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). 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 in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.