Image by Matt’ Johnson licensed under Creative Commons.

Last week, a group of Maryland state legislators introduced a plan for overhauling Metro. Among the changes in the proposal: WMATA’s Board of Directors would be limited to one appointee from each jurisdiction, the Inspector General’s office would have more power, the Rider's Advisory Council would have a greater voice, and a dedicated funding source for Metro would be mandatory.

How it would work

The Maryland legislators hope to drastically alter how WMATA’s Board of Directors works and bring more accountability to the system. Currently, the plan only exists as a proposal, but the group of legislators hopes that it will gain momentum across the region and become reality in the near future.

The group includes eight Maryland state delegates and two state senators, including Senator Brian Feldman, who is on the Board of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, and Delegate Marc Korman (who has contributed to GGWash). All of the legislators represent either Montgomery or Prince George’s County.

The proposal puts forth major changes that would fundamentally change WMATA. The major changes include the following:

  • Require a dedicated source of WMATA funding from DC, Maryland, and Virginia
  • Strengthen the Rider's Advisory Council, a committee of Metro riders that voices community concerns to WMATA.
  • Reform the way WMATA builds new tracks and buys new equipment.
  • Strengthen the role of the Inspector General, which audits WMATA. The proposal would give the IG more money, power over staffing decisions, and other abilities.
  • Change the composition of the WMATA Board of Directors to just include the heads of the jurisdictions’ departments of transportation. Right now, board members from Virginia are usually elected officials, ones from Maryland are strictly unelected, and those from DC are a mix of elected and unelected officials.
  • Make it so board members can’t veto decisions (any of them currently can).

Image by Austin Kirk licensed under Creative Commons.

Dedicated funding, a better Rider Advisory Council, and a stronger Inspector General are good ideas

Currently, DC, Maryland, Virginia, and the federal government must each come up with funding every year as part of their budget processes. This means that the level of funding is unpredictable, and often insufficient. Consequently, WMATA General Director Paul Wiedefeld and others are pushing for regional governments to create a reliable source of funding that doesn’t depend on the whims of annual budget processes.

The legislators’ proposal points out that WMATA is unique among major American transit agencies for not having dedicated funding already. In practice, this currently means that WMATA’s bond rating is lower than other agencies (despite having less debt), increasing the cost of borrowing money. There is a growing consensus from the region’s leaders that a dedicated funding source is paramount for the future of Metro, so this is a step in the right direction for Maryland’s legislators.

The proposal leaves it up to each individual jurisdiction to decide how it wants to provide dedicated funding to WMATA, but does make a few suggestions for how to do it, such as increasing taxes on gas, property, or rental cars.

Giving more power to the Riders Advisory Council is also a good idea to give the public a voice in WMATA’s decisions. Currently, the Council has very little power, and without some sort of meaningful forum for public engagement, WMATA may likely continue to suffer from public mistrust. The Maryland proposal would merge the Riders Advisory Council with the Accessibility Advisory Committee, guarantee WMATA funds to operate the council, and move to a system where local governments would appoint riders to the council. Currently, WMATA selects council members through its own application process.

The Inspector General is already an established position within WMATA, but the legislators’ proposal seeks to strengthen the role. The Inspector General oversees WMATA audits, but the proposal would guarantee that a portion of the WMATA budget go towards the Inspector General’s budget (currently the Board must agree on an amount every year) and increase the length of the Inspector’s term to seven years.

Earlier this year, two of the proposals sponsors, Delegates Erek Barron and Marc Korman, explained in a post how emboldening the Inspector General can help Metro’s safety.

The proposal also strengthens the role by giving the Inspector General the authority to make personnel decisions and work with outside consultants.

WMATA has begun to make progress on its maintenance backlog, but the agency suffers from financial shortfalls, subpar reliability, and declining ridership. A group of Maryland state legislators hopes to change that. Image by nevermindtheend licensed under Creative Commons.

Changes to WMATA’s board structure are more controversial

Replacing the current board members with the heads of the departments of transportation from DC, Maryland, and Virginia is an option that offers some serious trade-offs. Selecting who should serve on the board of a major transit agency like WMATA is a tricky balance, especially considering the number of jurisdictions involved.

The Maryland legislators argue that the current hodge-podge of elected and unelected officials creates a system where it is not clear who is responsible for the mistakes and accomplishments of the board, so no one can be held accountable.

GGWash contributor Ben Ross suggests that you have two general solutions to this problem: either have the public directly elect board members, or make it so that politicians have clear ownership of the decisions made on the board:

…(B)oard members, and by extension Metro management, serves as scapegoats to take the blame for the politicians' decisions. They vote (on all but minor questions) as instructed by the Secretary. But Metro is unable to point out when the politicians make decisions inimical to its interests, because it works for them.

This situation could be improved either by freeing the board members from control by the politicians (direct election), so that they can criticize political decisions they don't like, or by making the politicians directly responsible for the decisions. Right now you have the worst of both worlds — apparent independence without real independence.

If the heads of transportation departments from DC, Maryland, and Virginia took over the WMATA board, Maryland says, there would be a much clearer tie between board decisions and the two governors and DC’s mayor. In theory, that should mean more qualified transportation officials getting board positions.

But there are drawbacks to this approach. As GGWash founder David Alpert points out, having technocrats like transportation heads on the board may not always be in the public interest:

(T)here's some value in having board members who are responsive to riders! The goal of WMATA isn't to maximize its cost savings, it's to provide transportation. Sometimes transit experts want to run an efficient system instead of the best one. Shouldn't that be a political consideration?

GGWash contributor Patrick Kennedy adds his concerns on the proposal:

The principal board members need to be engaged. Inasmuch as WMATA needs board members without interest conflicts prone to parochial paralysis, it also needs board members who will perform active oversight and who are in touch with reality — not just accepting whatever line they're fed by management because they don't have the will or the time to do their own due diligence. Being a state DOT secretary is a huge job, and is traditionally rooted in road building/management far more so than mass transit and urban mobility considerations. In Virginia, especially, the job entails coverage of a huge geographic area and is based far from the DC area. Do we really expect this person to be as engaged as they need to be for regular board meetings, committee meetings, and public outreach?

There is no easy answer for how to reform WMATA’s board, and all possible solutions have drawbacks.

Nix the veto?

The proposal also would eliminate the jurisdictional veto, which currently allows board members from District, Maryland, or Virginia to unilaterally oppose any WMATA changes that the other two jurisdictions support.

Patrick also thinks eliminating the veto power of the jurisdictions was a bad idea:

The District's DOT fulfills a much different mission and is responsive to a different set of needs than either the Maryland or Virginia DOTs. It is necessarily guided by a philosophy more common to a city DOT than a state one, and Metro is more critical to it than it is to the whole of either state.

Ben, on the other hand, emphasizes the shortcomings of the current veto power:

The danger here is that a jurisdictional veto can be used to intimidate Metro management. The possible outcomes can be seen in the New York/ New Jersey Port Authority, which has become a patronage dumping ground where management is divided into two teams which report to the respective governors. Thus the famous demand for “traffic problems in Fort Lee” from Gov. Christie's office. Fortunately, Maryland governors (of both parties) have been more responsible in this regard than New Jersey's and New York's, but the current system invites that sort of abuse.

There are lots of proposals on the table

The Maryland proposal is just the newest of many possible solutions to reform WMATA. Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe hired former US Secretary Ray LaHood to conduct a study on WMATA, and the transit agency’s largest union, ATU, has authored its own proposal. GGWash board members Dan Tangherlini and Emeka Monome have also put forth ideas for what a reformed WMATA Board could look like.

As the legislators who put forth the Maryland proposal only represent part of the interests of one of several jurisdictions involved with WMATA, much of what is in here will never come to pass. Nonetheless, the proposal has some interesting ideas that are worth investigating.

The efficacy of the reforms to WMATA’s board are less clear however. The board likely needs change, but what change is a difficult question. Creating more accountability both within WMATA and on the Board is important, but over-politicizing the agency’s decisions may be even worse.