Image by Matt’ Johnson licensed under Creative Commons.

This is the third in a three-part series by GGWash board member Dan Tangherlini on the WMATA/Metro governance crisis and our need as a region to address it.

In my last two posts I attempted to detail both a more comprehensive and expansive vision for a renewed WMATA and how to pay for it. In this post I offer some suggestions on how to restructure the WMATA Board of Directors to improve governance and accountability.

Building a better WMATA board

The idea of replacing WMATA’s board with a Control Board appointed by the federal government has gained some traction recently and has been endorsed by at least one WMATA board member. As a former board member myself, I can understand the attraction.

The Metro board is held hostage by parochial and regional political interests, and while it is easy to ascribe some nefarious intent to these actions, it is actually a logical and rational reaction to a responsibility that comes with very little up-side. On the revenue side, the levers are fare and subsidy increases; on the expense side, service, staffing, or maintenance cuts. Revenues either come from riders (read: voters) or local/state budgets (read: taxes). Service cuts are unpopular and staffing is tied to service. So, cutting maintenance and reinvestment is the easy and expedient solution. Hence the bind we are in today.

But the current board and its structure will not allow for a sudden, new, cooperative and outcome-focused approach. It has outrun its usefulness and needs to be replaced with something more effective and accountable. A recent opinion piece by two prominent members of the Federal City Council makes a similar case. In short, we should rebuild the WMATA board around people who have the actual responsibility of managing and running our transportation network, and then hold them accountable for Metro's performance.

Here is my proposal for a new WMATA board:

  • Appoint the region’s three chief executives— DC’s mayor and the governors of Maryland and Virginia— to the WMATA board. For precedent, the governor of Maryland sits on the Board of Public Works, which approves all contracts over a certain threshold. This would likely dramatically reduce the frequency and intensity of WMATA board meetings. The current schedule of nearly-weekly meetings drains the staff of time, focus and energy. The board should be a board, not a near-continuous exercise in managerial second-guessing. This would also assure clear political accountability for Metro’s performance.

  • Appoint the region’s three transportation secretaries/directors to the board as well. These individuals represent the organizations accountable for providing mobility to this region. They have an improving track record of cooperation and coordination; joint participation in the affairs of WMATA would bring them even closer together. These people are very busy as well and would also be less inclined to undermine organizational executive authority and accountability.

  • Create a technical advisory board with members from the jurisdictions in the service area appointed to provide specific skills and experiences. Instead of providing a political plum to a local elected official or appointee, these technical advisory board slots should be filled, on a rotating basis, by individuals with transportation, engineering, real estate, finance, customer service, and daily rider experience. Board and advisory board members should be able to provide useful advice, experience and insight to management — not just skills in political dealmaking.

  • Eliminate the federal board positions. These positions were added to the board with the aim of limiting regional parochialism and enhancing the local Congressional delegation's influence over decision making. Half of these slots were unfilled for the first several years of their existence, and a recent bill transferred the appointment of the positions to the DOT Secretary from the GSA Administrator — a potential conflict of interest given the DOT Secretary’s responsibility for transit grant making and safety oversight. In place of these positions one of the technical advisory board members could be a Federal Government employee or representative from DOT, GSA, HUD or NCPC.

  • Make the general manager a non-voting member of the board and the chairman. This will place the power, responsibility and accountability for setting the agenda in the hands of management. Matters related to general manager performance, compensation, hiring and firing, would be handled by a standing committee of the board and technical advisory board that would operate independently of the chair and would include the inspector general.

  • Require the region’s transportation planning body develop an annual “service budget” for WMATA. The Transportation Planning Board at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments should develop route and fare suggestions in the form of an annual service budget proposal for the WMATA board. This body, serving as our formal Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), already develops the region’s Constrained Long Range Plan that provides a blueprint for transportation funding and grants. This new role would allow regional elected representatives to weigh in on issues that directly relate to their constituencies, while leaving technical and operational issues to the newly streamlined and more accountable WMATA board.

These changes to the board should make WMATA’s management more accountable

The main characteristic of this approach would be to dramatically reduce the day-to-day involvement of the board in WMATA management. While it is hard to imagine that a system experiencing as many problems as that of Metro/WMATA would paradoxically benefit from less direct oversight, that is, in fact, my proposal. The current structure removes authority from, and by extension accountability of, the organization’s management.

The current board structure has existed since its founding nearly 50 years ago. It was designed to accommodate a system being built and developed. Decisions about line routing, station placement and timing were the primary focus and responsibility of the board. These decisions are informed by important questions of equity, fairness and cost, such as: “Where does the Green Line go?” “How will we fund the Silver Line?” “Where are the entrances for the NOMA station?” A political board is better equipped for these choices and trades.

However, a political board is the absolute worst construct for an operating entity with multiple constituencies, long-term investment commitments and decisions that can impact riders today. A political board is more likely to make decisions that are politically expedient but operationally irresponsible.

The best WMATA board would be one comprised of a combination of people who are very powerful, experienced and busy, as well as those not worried about their next election. They would meet to provide advice, counsel, and oversight, but let WMATA management manage. Accountability would be provided through clear, transparent, continuously measured and publicly available performance metrics related to safety, service reliability and customer service. Non-performance would support the board making its most important choice: the hiring and retention of an effective General Manager.

A word on my series of posts

I wrote this series with the intent of sparking a conversation about how we might go about designing WMATA knowing what we know 50 years after its founding. I knew that more than a few of these ideas would be difficult politically and maybe, ultimately, undesirable. But that is the purpose of GGWash: to be a forum for discussion, debate and ideas.

WMATA and Metro were built by people in our region who cared and acted. We owe it to the next generation of residents of our region to care and act. A small way you can show you care — and act — is by supporting GGWash.

Thank you for your interest and comments.

-Dan Tangherlini

Dan Tangherlini has had a diverse public service career in local, regional and federal government, including service as Director of the District Department of Transportation, interim General Manager of WMATA, DC City Administrator, CFO of the US Department of the Treasury, and head of the US General Services Administration. Dan lives on Capitol Hill.