Photo by blahmni.

Everybody seems to want to have more control over WMATA, but far fewer want to show leadership to try to improve it. The latest vague noises about WMATA oversight come from Mayor Fenty and Governors McDonnell and O’Malley, who gave a press conference about wanting more control over an agency they’ve virtually ignored.

According to the Post’s Frerick Kunkle,

All three agreed that they wanted to have better oversight over WMATA’s management and the people they appoint to run it.

All three were more than a little vague about how this would happen, except to say they would ask Congress to make legislative changes. And they agreed to meet and talk some more.

"I think we have some consensus that some improvements are needed in that compact to give us more oversight,” McDonnell (R) said. “I think, quite frankly, we agree we need more accountability at WMATA,” Fenty (D) said. “We would like to have more direct oversight over WMATA, and not less,” O’Malley (D) said. “And I think that was the bottom line coming out of today’s discussions.”


This might sound good in the press, but is extremely ironic since these three have plenty of oversight authority already which they’ve neglected to exercise.

And, not surprisingly, none of the three took transit to the event.

The Tri-State Oversight Committee, which exercises the safety oversight the leaders say is lacking, is directly under the control of those three. The members of TOC are employees of DDOT, MDOT and VDOT, and thus report directly to Fenty, O’Malley and McDonnell. Yet prior to the crash, TOC was virtually invisible to the heads of the DOTs and the elected leaders.

When TOC ran into problems like being denied access to tracks, they didn’t feel they had the access to the top to escalate the problem. If WMATA lacked effective oversight before last year’s crash, Fenty, O’Malley, and former Governor Tim Kaine were the ones with the most direct ability to change the situation.

Fixing that was the one constructive change the three did announce: “The Tri-State Oversight Committee would receive ‘additional executive authority’ with monthly reviews and reporting requirements,” according to Kunkle.

It’s rich to hear O’Malley complain about not having more accountability given that he personally appoints the WMATA Board members from Maryland. What power does he want, exactly? O’Malley has kept mum about WMATA’s funding problems, even while most local representatives have asked for support.

His administration is also deferring existing capital commitments and resisting renewing its capital commitments. That money is necessary to replace unsafe railcars and avoid dangerous overcrowding. If O’Malley thinks things can be better at WMATA, he could start by making public statements about what he’d actually do to make things better.

Fenty didn’t put anything in the budget to help maintain service, despite receiving hundreds of emails from DC residents asking for a Fair Share for Metro. In his reply to those residents, he falsely said the WMATA Board decides budget issues, when in fact he does.

His administration does only get one vote on the Board, but has kept the overly-busy City Administrator Neil Albert in the seat, who doesn’t ever say much at meetings. Jim Graham, the Council’s rep, is much more active. Fenty and Albert could also start having more oversight over WMATA by talking publicly about how they’d like to change things, instead of just how they’d like more control.

As for McDonnell, he can indeed complain about not having more power over WMATA. He doesn’t appoint anyone to the Board, since the local jurisdictions do that. However, that’s because the State of Virginia doesn’t pay for transit service. In general, Virginia has spent most of its energy (under Democratic and Republican governors alike) ignoring WMATA with the exception of pushing for a new line, and spending all its transportation money on everything but transit.

However, he can do plenty to improve transit, like instructing VDOT to start working constructively to implement bus priority corridors around the state, or letting Northern Virginia jurisdictions tax themselves if they so choose to support transit.

WMATA isn’t perfect. There’s plenty to improve. However, a lack of control is not getting in the way of O’Malley, Fenty, and McDonnell taking clear steps to start fixing the situation. They’ve taken one very small step to change the one area they control unilaterally, but could do plenty more. It’s just easier to blame others instead of trying to work to fix things.