When new Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham joined the WMATA Board of Directors in 1999, it cost $1.10 to ride the bus. Metro’s rail system closed at midnight. The Yellow Line stopped at Mount Vernon Square. The Columbia Heights Metro station had yet to open, and the only Metro station then open in Ward 1, at U Street, had not yet proven to be the magnet for economic development that its boosters had promised as compensation for nearly a decade’s worth of torn-up streets and construction staging.
When Jim Graham stepped down as chairman of the Metro Board and began his last full year on it in 2010, it cost $1.25 to ride the bus. You could catch a train until 3 am. The Yellow Line ran all the way to Fort Totten, doubling service on the mid-city corridor outside of off-peak hours. And Columbia Heights had been transformed – along with the U Street corridor – by a rush of development, including a restored Tivoli Theatre, new apartments, and a brand-new public plaza right across the street from the DCUSA shopping center (a project that Graham helped make possible).
Graham passed away on Thursday at the age of 71. Much has since been said since about one of the most interesting, impactful, and controversial councilmembers in the Home Rule era. But one particularly significant aspect of Graham’s legacy is his service on the Metro Board of Directors, a role in which Graham brought to bear the impulses which defined his broader career in public life, for good and ill.
Although the District’s representatives on the Board, with the exception of Gladys Mack, have not traditionally approached the service length of former Maryland Board Members Cleatus Barnett and Carlton Sickles, who each clocked over 30 years’ worth of service, Graham’s impact in 12 years probably puts his name on a short list of the most influential directors in the authority’s history. He was certainly among its most visible, twice serving as Board chairman (in 2003 and at the time of the Ft. Totten crash in 2009) and acting as the face for a number of high-profile initiatives.
Jim Graham fought hard against bus fare hikes
He was unabashedly parochial and effectively worked with whomever his counterpart was for the District – usually Mack or Neil Albert – in order to advance what he felt were DC’s interests, often seen through the prism of his diverse and transit-reliant Council constituents. This was perhaps most evident in his relentless refusal to yield on Metrobus fare increases; he wielded the jurisdictional veto on more than one occasion to block Board consideration of even modest hikes. This kept the fare rise well under inflation for the vast majority of his tenure, until fiscal duress brought about by the Great Recession left the Board little choice but to impose a 25-cent increase in the summer of 2010.
On this, as with many other issues, Graham was unique among board members, even elected ones, in that his decision-making calculus revolved heavily on the degree to which policies being considered would impact the least fortunate. He saw bus service as a lifeline for poorer residents and service workers, a large number of whom lived or worked in Ward 1, and from his position on the Board it was far easier to block a fare increase than it was to coax additional money out of jurisdictional budgets to subsidize fares according to a means test.
He was not a transit planner by trade, rarely rode buses and trains himself, and displayed little interest in the nuances of transit policy – but he was a savvy politician and a sharp mind that could seize upon anything that would allow him leverage in achieving bottom-line goals.
He also pushed for several changes to improve transit service
Far from simply utilizing his position to block changes that he felt unwelcome, he was able to form coalitions in order to advance changes that he sought. He was the primary driver behind the expansion of weekend Metro service, first to 1 am, then 2 am, and finally 3 am in 2003. This change had largely been publicized for its benefits to for late-night revelers, but for Graham it was a service to the nightlife industry that was a major employer in his ward and to low-income workers who were most in need of it.
Similarly, it was Graham’s initiative to extend the Yellow Line north of Mount Vernon Square – where it formerly terminated at all times – in order to increase service to stations in the rapidly-growing mid-city. As a result, the Yellow Line was extended to Fort Totten during all times except rush hours in 2006 as part of a pilot that was made permanent the following year.
He and his staff impacted many other transit changes over the course of his tenure, ranging from the useful (establishment of the Adams Morgan-U Street Link aka Metrobus 98, which later transformed into the present Woodley Park-McPherson Square Circulator largely along his design) to the frivolous (appending “African American Civil War Memorial” and “Adams Morgan” to the “U Street-Cardozo” and “Woodley Park-Zoo” station names, respectively).
Some of these changes came with drawbacks, and he came with flaws
Yet, despite the popularity of many of these changes, some have lost their sheen retrospectively viewed in the context of the rail system’s decline after Graham’s departure from the Board in 2011. Many have blamed extended rail hours, for instance, for Metro’s failure to properly maintain the system in recent years since they reduced the amount of usable “track time” to perform upkeep. Similarly, Graham’s instance on holding the line with bus fares even as rail fares steadily increased and intermodal transfers were unaddressed served to exacerbate the two-tiered “Caste” system between rail and bus service.
And then there are the ethical questions that plagued Graham, particularly in the latter part of his tenure, the most damning of which involved allegations that he utilized his dual role on the Metro board and the Council to steer a WMATA land disposition away from a particular developer in exchange for facilitating council approval of a lottery contract. This was a major factor behind his defeat at the hands of Brianne Nadeau in 2014.
As Mike DeBonis says, then, Graham was a complex and contradictory figure who embodied the transactionalism of Marion Barry in much of the way he operated – particularly with developers.
All the cliches about being a complex and contradictory man happen to be true. He stands only barely behind Marion Barry in that regard.— Mike DeBonis (@mikedebonis) June 15, 2017
He was a relentless transactionalist, cozied up to developers, and with few qualms presided over the gentrification of his ward.— Mike DeBonis (@mikedebonis) June 15, 2017
Nonetheless, he was able to retain an extraordinary degree of support even in his waning days as a result of substantive achievement, legendary responsiveness, and keen political skills.
The lesson that Jim Graham’s tenure can teach us
The experience of the last several years has made it fashionable to bash politicians on the Metro Board for parochialism and short-sightedness, and to be certain Graham deserves his share of the blame along with other Board members – perhaps more than most – for overseeing Metrorail’s atrophying. His ethical shortcomings defy easy defense as well.
But it isn’t fair to evaluate his tenure and dwell on those negatives without acknowledging that he also achieved more tangible things for riders than perhaps any Board member in the authority’s history, even if one acknowledges drawbacks of some changes. If bus fares had been increased more steadily, for instance, would the subsidies that the jurisdictions invested to keep them low have been instead reallocated to service or capital improvements? Perhaps, but it is just as likely absent any impetus that the dollars would have been spent elsewhere and the budget balanced on the backs of riders who could least afford it.
Just as Board deliberations can’t exclusively be informed by provincial, crowd-pleasing politicians – it would be equally unfortunate if they were solely informed by rootless technocrats at a remove from the experience of the riding public and the needs of the less fortunate. Jim Graham’s responsiveness and view of how policy would impact riders was necessary and welcome, and these sensibilities should be part of the constitution of any future Board.
Much as it’s fair to say that not every public official should be like Jim Graham, it’s equally fair to say that the world would be worse if they were all his opposite.