Rail switch image from Shutterstock.

What does WMATA need? Just more money, and otherwise everything is okay? Major cuts, abandoning hope of eight-car trains and fixing the Blue Line in this generation? Or a balance of real management reforms and more investment at the same time? These are the positions Virginia, Maryland, and DC officials, respectively, are taking.

In a recent article in the Washington Post, Abigail Hauslohner and Robert McCartney reveal more details about management problems at WMATA: funding pensions out of the operating budget, failing to spend capital dollars on time, being months overdue on a required audit, and not delivering reports to the jurisdictions as promised.

Both DC Mayor Muriel Bowser and Maryland governor Larry Hogan have been pushing for a “turnaround specialist” to run WMATA. They agree some of WMATA’s financial problems are serious. But beyond that, what each means by “turnaround” is somewhat different.

DC transportation head Leif Dormsjo wants a “CEO” to make service better for riders while also fixing these serious failures and problems with Metro’s overall culture.

Meanwhile, Pete Rahn, the new Maryland transportation secretary who insists he’s not a “highway guy,” wants to cut costs much more deeply. He wants WMATA to completely shelve any talk about expanding the system or even increasing the number of eight-car trains. One anonymous Maryland official even suggested the state might want to cut service (and Maryland is already cutting some bus service this year had already considered cutting some bus service this year, though that plan was rejected in March).

Virginia transportation secretary Aubrey Layne, meanwhile, was happy to have WMATA pick another transit agency head, like Richard Sarles, as the next General Manager. Until this year, most of the WMATA board agreed. Both the Gray administration’s member and last year’s board chair, Tom Downs, and this year’s board chair and federal member Mort Downey, who are both also longtime friends of Sarles, were ready to hire another person from the US transit executive club until DC and Maryland blocked that plan.

Maryland says don’t think about the future

Rahn told Hauslohner and McCartney that “Discussions of expansion have to be deferred for maintenance, and it means saying ‘no’ to some popular things until [Metro] has addressed throughout its system the issues of performance and safety.”

While maintenance is extremely important, it’s also dangerous to completely ignore anything else. While Metrorail ridership has declined slightly, the overall trend is toward hitting capacity ceilings — not to mention the Blue Line, which is suffering right now.

Rahn would certainly not say that Maryland should cancel any plans for even the smallest local road capacity increase project until every road and bridge is in tip-top shape and nobody ever dies on the roads, period. For example, Rahn said Maryland would find the money, no matter what, to build new ramps at the Beltway to get the FBI at Greenbelt. I don’t disagree with him that this is a worthwhile road project. Eight-car trains on Metro (and the Purple Line!) are similarly important.

The public deserves a voice

Dormsjo and Rahn have been more public about their views than the board has generally been in the past. This is welcome. The public has a right to be a part of this conversation. Too often, WMATA executives and some board members (especially ones who themselves were transit executives) want to keep the controversies quiet.

That’s a mistake. Hiding all of these problems has just made them seem so much worse, and the transgressions so much more severe, than if the agency had been honest in the first place. Even some board members, like now-mayor Bowser, say the agency misled them.

Ultimately, board members and riders alike will respect the CEO more for exposing, admitting to, and then fixing problems instead of continuing to hide them. That’s the only way to build trust, and trust is something WMATA sorely needs.

There’s a fair concern that if Maryland, Virginia, and DC can’t ultimately agree, then it will be hard for anyone to run the agency. A great CEO will need his or her board united behind a course of action. The three jurisdictions will ultimately have to agree on whether to use new railcars for more eight-car trains, whether to plan to fix the Blue Line or not, and so on.

The best way to get there is through a public conversation first about these priorities and the agency’s problems. The WMATA Board announced that it would seek public input on the General Manager hiring, but has only provided two opportunities, neither very satisfying: you can speak at a board meeting in person on Thursday at 10:00 am (if you don’t have to be anywhere else all morning), or you can fill out an online survey.

Part of the survey. Click to take it.

That survey gives a large list of qualities we might want the next GM to possess. Unfortunately, all are uncontroversial, positive qualities and it’s virtually certain that the scores will come out strongly for all, giving the board the chance to do whatever it would have anyway rather than providing any truly meaningful input.

Multiple Greater Greater Washington contributors reacted to the survey by speculating that this was “input for input’s sake” or a way “to get the answers they already decided on.” Hopefully one of the next General Manager’s skills will be understanding how to actually seek input from the public that is useful and actionable.


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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.