Photo by M.V. Jantzen on Flickr.
Everyone agrees WMATA has problems. Unfortunately, there are a lot more criticisms of the problems going around than actual solutions. That’s because solutions are hard.
But if we’re going to actually fix WMATA, instead of just complaining about it, we need to seriously discuss how to fix what’s broken.
Calling for all WMATA Board members to be lined up against a wall and shot might feel satisfying after you’ve gotten stuck in a tunnel after a train malfunction, but it’s not realistic. Dissolving the whole agency isn’t going to fix anything either. The trains will still be aging, the escalators still worn out, the PID signs getting behind.
Some say that all that’s really broken is funding. That WMATA quite simply can’t afford to maintain all its aging equipment, leading to breakdowns and frustration. If they had the money, things would run smoothly and riders would be happy.
That’s partly true, and funding is a big problem. No matter how well run an organization, it’s not possible to run good transit service without the minimal resources necessary. However, good organizations also make the best of their limitations. Many DC agencies have become more efficient at delivering quality service despite limited funds as well.
The DC government even pulled itself out of a hole similar to what WMATA now finds itself in, where everything was falling apart and it gained a public reputation for total incompetence that has taken a long time to shake even once actual results turned around.
Many have said that fixing WMATA must start at the top. For that reason, the Greater Washington Board of Trade decided to examine WMATA’s governance structure, and the Council of Governments, chaired by DC Councilmember Kwame Brown, signed on to participate. Unfortunately, despite early promises, the task force quickly voted to conduct almost all its deliberations in secret, shutting riders out from learning about and participating in the conversation about this important issue.
The Riders’ Advisory Council therefore decided to conduct its own, more open conversation and analysis of WMATA’s governance. Its committee, which I chaired, held 7 public meetings and heard from 5 current WMATA Board members, 3 former members, and representatives of business, transit advocacy, and labor groups. The RAC has now released a draft of a report for public input, and really wants to hear what you think.
The RAC developed 6 high-level recommendations:
- The Board is analogous to a legislature and should include public officials.
- The Board should set clear, high standards for its members.
- The Board should focus on high-level policy and objectives.
- The Board should act as a regional body rather than as individuals.
- WMATA’s top staff member should be a CEO rather than a General Manager.
- Board decision-making should include a clear and accessible public input process.
I’ll examine each of these in this series. Let start with #2, the easiest by far. WMATA Board members vary greatly in quality, and even on basic metrics that almost anyone can agree with, some are falling down on the job.
Chief among these is attendance, which GGW and the Examiner have repeatedly noted. Some Board members have missed up to two-thirds of meetings. Some worst offenders have told reporters they are involved behind the scenes, but that’s not a substitute for actually participating in the meetings.
Likewise, some members come under repeated criticism for not riding bus or rail. This should is a basic qualification for Board members. The RAC therefore recommended the Board set attendance standards, to clarify to any potential member that attending is part of the job, and that jurisdictions appoint people who are going to attend and going to ride transit.
In addition, when hearing from many current and former Board members, the RAC committee noticed that people had very divergent views of what is expected of a member. Is communicating with riders part of the job? Advocating for transit publicly? The Board should create a written list of responsibilities, so that riders and jurisdictions making appointments can all be on the same page when thinking about members.
There’s more to membership on the Board than simply casting votes in favor of the best proposals. Board members typically take the issues WMATA faces back to their own jurisdictions and advocate for its funding needs. Many, especially in DC and Northern Virginia, also play a role in setting local land use policy.
Land use greatly affects transit ridership and the revenues of the transit system. TOD around a station brings in more riders, especially more riders outside rush hours, than large parking lots. When people who make transit decisions are also part of the local conversation around land use, it strengthens the link between the decisions WMATA makes and the decisions the local government makes. It’s best for WMATA, and for the region, when some people overlap between both.
What do you think should be qualifications for Board members? What roles and responsibilities should apply to the Board and its members?
You can read this section of the RAC report, as well as the whole report, here. Next, I’ll discuss #3, how the Board should take a higher-level, more policy-focused view.