Photo by infosnackhq on Flickr.

Previously, we discussed two of the six elements of the Riders’ Advisory Council’s report on WMATA governanace: setting high standards for Board members’ attendance and ridership, and the Board focusing on high-level policy. Another very important element of the recommendations is getting more of a CEO to run WMATA, and treating him or her like a CEO.

WMATA needs strong leadership, especially now. It needs someone who can formulate a clear vision for WMATA’s future, what steps it needs to take to get there, and advocate for the necessary resources from governments, organization restructuring, changes to labor agreements, and more.

Unfortunately, the Board-General Manager relationship does not facilitate this leadership. The General Manager acts as an employee of the Board instead of as the head of the organization. The Board chair, not the General Manager, typically does interviews on TV.

The Board acts like a legislature today. They debate issues, often balancing the different needs and perspectives of different constituencies. That’s a worthy function, but one that takes time and is usually not clean and simple.

The press then tends to report how Board members disagreed on an issue instead of on a clear path forward. And the agency doesn’t move decisively on a clear path because it doesn’t have one.

The RAC’s report therefore recommends redefining this relationship. The Board should hire a top official who can act like a CEO. They should rename the position to CEO. And they should treat the CEO that way.

The CEO should develop a clear action plan for WMATA’s future, including short-term and long-term fixes and a path to get there. He or she should present it to the Board, and get signoff. The Board should set high-level performance targets, as we discussed before. Then, the Board should largely let the CEO move ahead with specific operational decisions to meet those targets.

When someone goes on television to represent WMATA, it should usually be the CEO. Of course, individual members might speak in their individual capacities, but the CEO should be the cardinal spokesperson, just like in almost any company, nonprofit, or government, the chief executive is the main face of the organization.

Finally, the Board should not try to control what the CEO does or doesn’t present to them. In recent budget cycles, the Board has set “guidance” that basically restricted what the General Manager’s budget could and couldn’t include. He had to propose draconian service cuts because the Board forbade him from suggesting fare increases over inflation or any increase in jurisdictional contributions, both of which ended up replacing service cuts in the final budget.

The Board gets to decide the budget, but the CEO should propose the one he thinks is right. This is similar to the way a state’s governor proposes a budget, and then the legislature can modify it.

The flip side of this is for the CEO to stick to the budget he thinks is best until the Board changes it. In the last cycle, the Board would discuss the budget, some members would make individual comments about pieces they didn’t like, and the staff would go back and revise the budget whether or not those changes had majority support on the Board. The budget became a moving target for advocates and other Board members. Instead, the CEO should simply formulate his recommendation, then let the Board keep it or change it on their own.

Some agencies make the role of the CEO even stronger. In New York, for example, the CEO is also the Chairman of the Board. This would be a more difficult change to make, requiring modifications to the WMATA Compact signed by DC, Maryland, and Virginia and reviewed by the federal government, but could be worth exploring as well.

David Alpert created Greater Greater Washington in 2008 and was its executive director until 2020. He formerly worked in tech and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco Bay, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle.