Lucinda Babers, DC’s Deputy Mayor for Operations and Infrastructure, will join the WMATA Board of Directors, Fenit Nirappil reported in the Washington Post over the weekend. In addition to Babers’ strong qualifications, having a deputy mayor sit directly on the board could help better coordinate transportation policies, avoiding the kind of situation that turned a well-meaning effort to make Circulator free into a controversy over equity.
Corbett Price, the previous mayoral appointee, resigned Friday afternoon, Nirappil and Bob McCartney reported. He had come under strong criticism for stopping the board’s ethics committee from releasing information about disgraced former board chairman and current DC councilmember Jack Evans. Greater Greater Washington had run an email campaign asking the mayor to remove Price and for the federal government to replace David Horner, who also had voted against disclosure.
The WMATA Board has eight “principal” voting members and eight alternates. DC, Maryland, Virginia, and the federal government each appoint two principal members and two alternates. In DC, by convention, the mayor selects one pair while the council selects the other. The council’s principal member, Evans, stepped down in June. With Evans and Price gone, the board has no remaining principal members, though the alternates, transit lobbyist Tom Bulger and DDOT Director Jeff Marootian, could cast any votes in their stead if need be.
Council chairman Phil Mendelson has yet to nominate a replacement for the council’s seat, but Bowser immediately tapped Babers. Babers was formerly head of the Department of Motor Vehicles before being elevated to a new position, Deputy Mayor for Operations and Infrastructure, this spring. DC has several deputy mayors, each overseeing a “cluster” of agencies. In the first Bowser term, transportation was part of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, but Bowser created the new “DMOI” office after her re-election.
Babers is still new to the deputy mayor role, but was well respected at DMV and has received positive reviews thus far as DMOI. What could be most significant about the choice is that instead of having an outsider who was a campaign contributor, as in the case of Price, she has a close advisor.
This matters because, when mayors want to do something in transportation, such as with buses, they typically have not looked at Metro. They have direct control over DDOT, but not Metro. Any decision has to go through Maryland, Virginia, and the federal government. The agency is large and a ship slow to turn.
Why make the Circulator free and not Metrobus?
Most recently, this happened with the Circulator. The mayor announced this spring that she’d make the Circulator free. It was a laudable impulse indeed to make transit more affordable and encourage higher ridership… but why the Circulator?
The Circulator runs six routes in DC, mostly in the central core. The Circulator brand, specifically, means regular 10-ish minute spacing between buses all day. But while it’d be great for every place in the District to have 10-minute bus service all day, with limited resources those routes have mainly gone to the denser areas with all-day activity, like commercial areas with offices and nightlife. There is currently no Circulator in Wards 5, in northeast DC, or 7, generally the northern half of neighborhoods east of the Anacostia.
But there are many buses! They just aren’t Circulators, they are Metrobuses. Metrobus carries the overwhelming majority of riders, and has much more service in lower-income communities than does the Circulator. While making transit more affordable is worthwhile, there’s a strong argument for doing this on the buses primarily used by people who most struggle with paying for transit.
Why focus on the Circulator? The simple reason is, because she could. The mayor can make the Circulator free with a decree. To make Metrobus routes cheaper or free… well, DC would have to bring up the issue at the WMATA board and negotiate with other jurisdictions. They share the cost of most bus service, so should they share this cost? Or should DC pay it all?
Can only a subset of routes become cheaper or free? Sure (not all buses cost the same now), but what needs to be done to communicate this? And so forth. There’s a lot to figure out.
Which should be figured out! DC should absolutely be raising this issue at the board, and other priorities, like all of the good ideas from the Bus Transformation Project, particularly free transfers between rail and bus. When the late Jim Graham was a board member, he might have crossed the ethics line, but he also pushed on keeping buses affordable. Since then, DC members haven’t seemed to care about that, or perhaps even been particularly aware of buses as part of Metro.
Babers can raise these issues
When Mayor Muriel Bowser and her team have ideas to improve transportation, it might now be easier for Babers to directly raise those issues. That doesn’t mean Maryland, Virginia, or the federal government won’t give DC headaches, necessarily, but it might reduce the disconnect between DC and Metro.
This isn’t the only move on the board to bring the agency closer to the chief executives. Maryland DOT Secretary Pete Rahn now sits on the board after recent legislation in the Maryland legislature mandates appointing the MDOT head. This was a recommendation from a WMATA working group chaired by delegates Marc Korman and Erek Barron, who believed that WMATA and the governors, mayor, and top transportation officials should be more personally involved in Metro.