Photo by MikeOliveri on Flickr.

What is the WMATA Board supposed to be?

Should it be a high-level policy board, which only looks at big picture issues and leaves specifics to the General Manager? Or should it be delving into decisions of staff to try to make sure any problems are rooted out?

Should it be made up of a number of elected officials, like a legislature, which listens to citizens but is perhaps somewhat inefficient and fractious? Or should it be a streamlined operation which makes decisions quickly, like a corporate board, but perhaps with less public involvement and issues and disagreements hidden?

Clearly, there’s a disconnect between my view of the WMATA Board and that of many commenters here. Then I realized: we’re talking about two totally different boards. Or rather, two totally distinct functions.

On the one hand, WMATA would indeed benefit from a board that conducts active oversight. The board should have the power to demand information and also change in any aspect of Metro’s operations, including safety, the conduct of staff, customer service, NextBus not working, and so on. This board needs to not just have the power to make recommendations, like the TOC or NTSB, but to insist on changes.

The ideal person for this board would be an independent individual not tied to politics, and probably a transit expert. Many could be appointed by chief executives of cities, states, and/or the nation. There shouldn’t be a jurisdictional veto. The Chair should probably stay constant over a period of time.

On the other hand, WMATA also is an interjurisdictional entity that has to balance the needs of three states, especially when it comes to fares and budgets as well as service patterns on rail and bus. It’s important for riders to have a voice, and for the board to listen to riders.

Elected officials work well on this board, because they respond to the public’s concerns. However, in rightly pushing for the interests of their jurisdiction, they also generate more gridlock and contentiousness. But as I told the WMATA Governance Task Force, democracy is the right approach to these issues, warts and all. The rotating chair and jurisdictional veto maintain balance among the three.

What about splitting them up?

There could be two boards for WMATA, a policy board and an oversight board. The policy board would decide fares, budgets and service patterns. The oversight board would monitor the operations of the agency and have power to enforce them.

The policy board would be more akin to a legislature. The legislature sets policy, and decides budgets, but doesn’t get into the details of executive operation most of the time. When Hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans, we didn’t really blame Congress except indirectly. The primary responsibility was on the President and his executive agencies. The oversight board would fill the role of the executive.

The policy board could have elected officials or people responsible for budgets, like Chris Zimmerman or Jim Graham. In addition, it should include elected representatives from riders. Perhaps its composition could be 2 DC, 2 Maryland, 2 Virginia, 2 federal, and 3 elected rider reps.

Meanwhile, the transit experts, like Mort Downey or Gordon Linton, would serve on the oversight board. That could have more of the executive-selected members, including one from the Governor of Virginia if Virginia decides to grant one. DC’s reps would be selected by the Mayor. There would again be 2 DC, 2 Maryland, 2 Virginia, and 2 Federal. Perhaps the head of the Tri-State Oversight Committee could serve ex officio as well.

The oversight board would need some authority to enforce the changes it sees necessary. Perhaps the oversight board can fire the GM if it feels it necessary, and both boards would jointly hire a GM. The inspector general could report to the oversight board. Perhaps there are other powers it should have as well.

To keep the two from becoming too separate, the members of one board could act as alternate members in meetings of the other. Today, half the members are voting and half alternate; instead, everyone could be voting on one board and alternate on the other.

After recent safety incidents, some board members complained that even they had a hard time getting information on safety. One member said he found out more about the derailment at Farragut North from reading Matt Johnson’s posts than he did from staff. Why? Because staff said they were forbidden from discussing an ongoing NTSB investigation publicly, and the board is public.

Ultimately, they were able to get information from staff under strict secrecy in executive session, but that prevented the board from pushing for specific policy changes to address the safety issues in the more than a year between the crash and the NTSB’s conclusions. The NTSB should change this policy, but that’s a larger debate. Meanwhile, an oversight board, while it should be public as much as possible, could hear more information in executive session.

Both boards could be part of the same board, which is largely the way things work today. But today’s system runs into problems. The veto and rotating chair are maintain balance when it comes to fare policy but does slow down the board’s ability to take decisive action on operations. Elected officials are more responsive to riders, but also have other commitments that reduce their ability to spend enormous amounts of time delving into the depths of WMATA. Some jurisdictions choose reps more suited to the policy role while others choose reps more focused on oversight.

Right now, the Board fills both roles but only about halfway. Two separate boards could ensure that each role is handled fully, by people suited to the task. The oversight board could be better at oversight, and with rider representatives and more elected officials, the policy board could be even more responsive to rider needs.

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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.