In 2016, the Federal City Council began investigating how it could aid reform efforts for Metro. Through a series of opinion pieces and discussions with regional leadership, the idea of a complete transformation of Metro’s governance, operational, and funding capabilities gained significant traction. Emeka Moneme, the Federal City Council’s deputy executive director and a member of the Greater Greater Washington Board of Directors, provides further insight into this pursuit and what it would mean for the region’s beleaguered— yet very relevant and vital— transportation system and the people that rely on it.
The WMATA Compact, the transit authority’s guiding document, is fundamentally flawed. For successful Metro reform to happen, there needs to be a new compact.
We can agree that a well-functioning Metro is fundamental to the civic and economic well-being of the Washington, DC region, as well as to the operation of the federal government. On a typical weekday, Metrorail and Metrobus carry over a million people to and from work as well as to social, sports and entertainment events.
We can also agree that this vital regional transportation system is clearly in crisis.
Recent reports on Metro’s budget highlight the financial crisis. Whether it is the higher-than-expected cost of implementing SafeTrack or Metro’s short-term cash position, there is clear cause for concern.
Declining ridership – already up to 100,000 fewer riders daily, and continuing to decrease – is a strong indication that some have given up on the system and are looking to other options for transportation. As riders seek alternative transportation options there has been a noticeable increase in surface transportation congestion on major arteries that are choking with traffic in and around the downtown DC core.
Some have placed the blame for Metro’s diminished role and reliability on those associated with the system – Metro management, board members, Metro employees, the funding jurisdictions and the federal government. Some have taken to ironic comedy to keep from crying. Popular local Twitter accounts such as @UnsuckDCMetro take every opportunity to point out what is not working, but beating on an already stressed system is not the answer. We must provide a viable and long-term solution for fixing and addressing the challenges that plague Metro.
The time for action is now because the status quo is unsustainable. The constituents that make up Metro – riders, employers, federal and local governments – must act.
History offers several potential diagnoses for why Metro is worsening: insufficient funding, poor management, or inefficient workforce. The challenge with solving for only one of these issues is that in isolation, doing so will not fix the overall problem. The solution lies in a fundamental and holistic re-alignment of the organization to ensure Metro’s strategy and resources are organized to prioritize the amelioration of the symptoms, remove political stimuli and refocus all efforts on the greater Metro transit system.
Metro has deep-seated governance, safety, and financial needs
Metro reform will allow the region to address the issues hindering Metro from a holistic view — to include governance, safety and funding — but, at the core of the WMATA crisis is a failure in governance. This failure is not necessarily about the individuals that sit (or have sat) on the board or the general manager. It is, rather, an existential issue that stems from the governance construct itself. Currently, members of Metro’s board of directors are required to serve as stewards of the system, while at the same time safeguarding the interests of the jurisdictional leaders that appoint them.
The current board structure limits accountability, enables competing fiduciary responsibility, undermines the safety and reliability of the system, and has eroded the confidence of riders and funders alike.
Addressing the structure and make-up of the Metro board of directors creates an opportunity to create alignment between the goals of the system and the provision of reliable service, a customer experience that we are proud of and the resources required for this service and experience.
Fundamentally, Metro must be a safe, reliable, and affordable transportation option and we recognize and applaud that Metro leadership continues to make safety a top priority. In response to several unfortunate and high-profile incidents, federal, state, and local governments took action by establishing the Metro Safety Commission (MSC). The organization is a few months away from being formally established and ready to pursue the hard work it will take to provide a robust regulatory framework for safety, but its mere presence will provide some assurance for ridership.
Beyond the MSC, Metro can be safer and reliable by improving the way that Metro service is delivered. This can be realized by examining solutions across a number of areas:
- Improved internal management practices.
- The integration of technology into the system.
- Leveraging innovation in other transportation modes and its impact on the nature and functionality of our regional transportation network.
There is also the fact that Metro is facing a $300 million deficit in its FY2018 operating budget, as well as a $200 million annual capital funding deficit to address deferred maintenance. The complicated relationship between Maryland, Virginia, the District of Columbia, and the federal government has made the availability of adequate and reliable funding an ongoing issue.
For a capital-intensive enterprise like Metro this is unacceptable, and it thwarts other efforts for improvements. The availability of a predictable and reliable funding source is critical to Metro’s future success. However it is the view of many that this funding should not be made available until there is confidence in the bodies that oversee the organization and regulate its safety practices.
Changes in these areas will improve operations, assist Metro workers and riders, and bring the Metro system back to a state-of-the-art transit system. While these types of improved operations can make Metro cost effective and more efficient, it will require resources.
It is time to fix Metro
Almost 50 years ago, our regional and federal leaders came together to forge a multi-jurisdictional agreement to build Metro. That agreement balanced the regional transportation system and competing political interests. The Washington region is a far different place in 2017. The agreement signed on February 20, 1967 should be renewed to reflect our current and future transportation and political dynamics. The new compact will reflect a pivot away from a governance focused on building the system to one focused on operating the system.
Metrorail’s challenges stem from structural deficiencies within the WMATA organization that cripple its ability to function effectively. A new WMATA Compact would rid the authority of these structural deficiencies and would provide for a financially, operationally, and organizationally sustainable future for Metro. The good news is that there is a means by which these deficiencies can be addressed.
The first step towards establishing a new compact for Metro is to introduce federal legislation. New legislation would set up a non-partisan, system-focused reform board as a solid foundation for Metro to address deferred maintenance beyond SafeTrack and draft improved operations and maintenance plans, while the signatories work to identify dedicated funding resources and plan for future regional growth.
A new WMATA Compact would establish a new governance structure with nine members, selected based upon qualifications and experience in relevant industries and serving as fiduciaries and stewards of the system to achieve the vision of the signatories. A new WMATA Compact would require a cost-effective operating plan built upon the provision of predictable and steady funding. A new WMATA Compact cound allow for labor agreements that are aligned with fiscal and operating realities of Metro. A new WMATA Compact would require a performance management program to ensure that key operational, financial and efficiency metrics are made transparent.
This first step directly addresses the fundamental challenges of the system; to provide safe and reliable transportation, to protect and grow our regional economy, to serve as a foundation for complementary regional transportation systems and to enhance the quality of life of the residents of the Washington DC region.