Photo by marrngtn (Manuel) on Flickr.

Last night, following a conference call between Governors O’Malley (MD) and McDonnell (VA) and DC Mayor-Elect Vince Gray, a press release went out seeming to endorse the recommendations in the Board of Trade’s report on WMATA governance.

The press release from the offices of the three executives seemed to endorse the report’s recommendations, including those that would diminish Northern Virginia’s role in governing Metro and weaken the veto which DC in particular often needs to guarantee its interests aren’t overridden by more numerous suburban votes on the board.

It also appeared that Gray was already abrogating the principles he’d run upon to better listen to residents before making decisions. The press release made no mention of the Riders’ Advisory Council’s own report. We know McDonnell doesn’t care about rider voices, but we’d hope for better from O’Malley and Gray.

Earlier yesterday, advocates from a number of transportation advocacy groups including myself met with Gray transition transportation co-chair Tom Downs, who said Gray hasn’t made any decisions and of course isn’t even mayor yet. He plans to analyze the report and the RAC report and give people a chance to weigh in before endorsing or promoting any specific recommendations.

Downs took responsibility for the press release not matching his own earlier statements. He said that he had sent it to Gray’s PR person just for review, but failed to clarify that it was just a draft, and so she sent the release out to the media before it was done.

Downs has shown himself to be a real stand-up guy through this and the meeting in general; he also has a very thorough grasp of transportation issues, from Metro to bikes and pedestrians to Circulator and streetcars. Some observers believe he is a likely appointee to the WMATA Board for the new administration, which would be an excellent choice. (He served on the Board during his previous stint in the DC government as well.)

The COG report itself contains a number of recommendations which agree with RAC suggestions, a number of other interesting ideas, and a number of recommendations that seem designed to increase Governor McDonnell’s and the Board of Trade’s own power without any clear explanation of how they will improve WMATA governance.

Here are the recommendations that also appear in the RAC report:

  • Make the chief executive a CEO. The clearest path to making WMATA more effective is to get an extremely capable leader and give him or her more power to bring change to the agency. The RAC report gets into more detail about how to accomplish this and the specific ways in which the Board is curtailing the General Manager.
  • Clarify the role of Board members. There isn’t a clear job description or set of roles and responsibilities for members, and different jurisdictions’ members sometimes see things differently. BOT/COG feels that the suggestion higher-level Governance Commission ought to do this, while the RAC felt that the WMATA Board itself could probably do a fine job of making those decisions.
  • Stop automatically rotating the chair. As the RAC also suggested, the Board should pick a chair who has the support of all members regionally and ideally reelect a good chair for more than one year instead of just automatically rotating through all six principal member seats.

Some other ideas from the BOT/COG report have merit:

  • Coordinate policy on compensation of Board members. WMATA doesn’t pay Board members. Virginia law says that officials who serve on boards get a token $50 per meeting, if they show up. Meanwhile, Prince George’s County was paying Marcel Solomon $39,000 to serve on the Board. It would make sense to get regional agreement about payment. I’d suggest Board member uniformly not receive any payment.
  • Give the chair a 2-year term. This could further add continuity to leadership on the Board.
  • Create an orientation process for new Board members. Great idea.

One recommendation is already the case:

  • Require a majority vote to change committees and procedures. This is already true. Each year, the Board passes a set of official procedures which can include a few changes from last time. BOT/COG seems to be under the misconception that the incoming chair simply dictates these. This is not the case. The group has to agree to any changes.

Meanwhile, a number of ideas would simply change the allocation of power over WMATA without any convincing explanation of why this would improve things for riders and for the region:

  • Create a new super-Board with less local involvement. The BOT/COG report recommends a new layer of bureaucracy, a special “Governance Commission” that includes the Virginia and Maryland governors, the DC mayor, the GSA administrator, and the heads of the NVTC (which appoints Virginia members today and mainly represents local counties and cities), the WSTC (which appoints Maryland members but is largely controlled by the Governor), and the DC Council. This gives localities a fairly small role. The RAC report argued that local jurisdictions need to feel a greater sense of responsibility for WMATA, not less. In particular, Montgomery and Prince George’s officials should be a part of WMATA’s governance. The WSTC is three-sevenths appointees of the Governor of Maryland, so putting the WSTC chair on the proposed Governance Commission wouldn’t give those counties much involvement in these decisions.
  • Remove alternates from Board meetings. Today, half the members are “alternate members,” who get to participate in debates and vote in committees but not actually vote at full Board meetings unless a principal member is absent. That includes the appointees made by Montgomery and Prince George’s county officials and from the City of Alexandria. BOT/COG wants to remove them entirely. There’s no evidence, though, that alternate members are any worse than principal members; some are, but others are great.
  • Add one executive appointment from each jurisdiction. In place of the alternates, BOT/COG suggests letting the governors and mayor each appoint one additional member. This would mean that the Governor of Maryland would appoint all three members instead of just the two principal ones, the DC mayor two of three, and that the Governor of Virginia would get one. This gets at the core of what we always feared was the true goal of this commission: to move the power over WMATA away from officials who listen to riders and into the hands of officials who listen to the Board of Trade.
  • Give Board members fixed 4-year terms and only allow reappointing them one time. This reflects their thinking that Board members should be outside individuals as opposed to local representatives. A 4-year term seems reasonable for the subset of members who aren’t public officials, but it doesn’t make sense for elected officials who serve on the Board. More importantly, limiting members to only serving 8 years would simply remove the strong level of institutional memory many members have, which improves their decisions since they know how an issue relates to decisions made in the past. The BOT/COG report gives no reasonable justification for this idea.
  • Give the chair more control over Board members. The report actually suggests the chair should have the power to prevent individual members from talking to the public and media. Muzzling members is also not the answer. In fact, the chair sometimes has too much power; some past chairs have told staff to remove pages from presentations they planned to make to the Board because they didn’t like some of the information being released. The chair should just facilitate the debate, not control the others.
  • Weaken or remove entirely the jurisdictional veto. BOT/COG was very concerned with the existing veto, which allows the principal members from any one jurisdiction (DC, MD, or VA) to block action if they all vote against a measure. While the veto has been abused at some times in the past, it’s also a necessary element to prevent any two from “ganging up” on the other. BOT/COG suggests limiting the veto only to budget matters or to system expansion. This seems okay, but in truth nearly everything affects the budget and system expansion. Escalator maintenance costs money. Changing the SmarTrip rules could affect fare collection. WMATA has a complex formula for allocating costs among jurisdictions. If two can vote, say, to change MetroAccess eligibility rules, the third will have to pay or will save money as a result. As another example, Matt Watson, a former DC member, noted in his discussions with the RAC how DC once prevented having Green Line trains run on the Red Line during the time when the inner Green Line wasn’t yet built. They feared that if that happened, the segment through Columbia Heights and Petworth would never get built. Therefore, DC vetoed this until WMATA had put out contracts to start building the line. This “related” to system expansion, but it was actually a veto of a service pattern change. It also had some budgetary impact, surely, but a small one. The bottom line is that it’s impossible to define exactly when the veto is and isn’t appropriate. The veto doesn’t get used on really minor things or things that don’t affect the vetoing jurisdiction, and some amount of public shaming has put natural caps on its use in unreasonable ways. Setting out a general policy listing some occasions that are appropriate or inappropriate, however, is a sensible idea.

The Board of Trade is clearly moving very fast to try to ram this report through. Governor McDonnell wants it since most of the elements reflect exactly what he’s been looking for. Since he agreed to co-chair the task force, Kwame Brown is in a difficult position since it’s now harder for him to oppose elements even if most DC residents come out against a part of the report.

However, Governor O’Malley and Vince Gray should restrain themselves from letting McDonnell and the Board of Trade steamroller them into poor choices. They have an alternate report that actually came from riders through a more open and public process rather than the secretive one of the BOT/COG task force. The best move would be to implement the RAC report’s recommendations, which overlap considerably with the BOT/COG ones, and which actually focus on those elements that will improve governance versus just reshuffling deck chairs to benefit a few groups.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.