Photo by veneman on Flickr.

DDOT, MDOT and VDOT have been planning how to enact some of the recently proposed WMATA governance reforms. The plan highlights a good set of proposals for immediate action, but cuts out Northern Virginia governments in a way that could hurt the region and Metro.

The “implementation plan” (PDF) examines the recommendations of the Board of Trade and Riders’ Advisory Council reports (PDFs). It rejects the somewhat unworkable idea from the Board of Trade to create a new super-board with members from DC, Maryland, Virginia, and the federal government to set standards for WMATA Board members, appoint a regional chair, and generally oversee the board.

Instead, it suggests that the DDOT Director and Maryland and Virginia Secretaries of Transportation work together as a less formal, temporary working group to set those standards, which makes a lot more sense.

The plan makes particular mention of a key element of the RAC report which BOT/COG glossed over: the importance of helping the WMATA Board focus on high-level policies and performance metrics instead of trying to get into the weeds of exactly how many cents SmarTrips should be allowed to go negative or which escalators seem to be out more often.

It also asks the working group to analyze one of the other major RAC recommendations, creating a better-defined public input process for board decisions. 

Finally, the plan also puts off decisions on many of the specific BOT/COG proposals, some of which are sensible while others are unwise. The informal working group will evaluate those specifics over the next year and draft potential legislation to be introduced in the 2012 legislative session.

Unfortunately, this cuts Arlington, Fairfax, Alexandria, Falls Church, Fairfax City, Loudoun, Montgomery and Prince George’s local officials out of the decisions about which BOT/COG or RAC recommendations to implement. It’s particularly problematic for the Northern Virginia counties and cities, who are the ones that pay for Metro.

The state government has long shown a reluctance to help fund transit in Northern Virginia, and Governor McDonnell’s recent “great time to build roads” transportation plan continues in that tradition. Will NoVA governments have as much incentive to put up their own limited money when a Secretary of Transportation who’s from another party and has political ambitions of his own is negotiating on their behalf?

DC and Maryland officials who deal with WMATA communicated a feeling that it’s easier to work with one single state government than an association of local governments. Projects sometimes have to be split into more pieces so that Fairfax, Arlington and Alexandria can participate, and some decisions take longer because the three need to coordinate and talk with the smaller cities as well.

However, this ignores the political realities. The DDOT and MDOT officials are prioritizing the convenience of doing their own jobs over the fact that Northern Virginia has a regional interest that Richmond lacks. If the state government wants to start contributing more meaningfully to Metro and make a long-term commitment, then it deserves more of a role in the governance.

During the RAC’s deliberations, riders expressed appreciation for having local officials making decisions. Local officials are more responsive to riders and more directly aware of the actual issues on the ground versus just the theories. State DOTs, on the other hand, are notorious for being out of touch with residents, as this video so hilariously points out. MDOT and VDOT, especially VDOT, have not been exceptions. While I can see why state DOT officials would find it appealing to make WMATA more like a state DOT, other officials and riders should view this effort with skepticism.

If the Northern Virginia governments had actually been the problem with Metro, there would be sense in suggesting a more centralized decisionmaking structure, but if anything they have been some of the best board members and the strongest advocates for a good system. Their localities have also done the most to merge land use and transportation planning, in Arlington’s case for decades, and with Fairfax making it a priority with the more recent Tysons plans.

On another note, while the writers of the report acknowledge the Riders’ Advisory Council report as well as the Board of Trade/COG task force report, the appendix only lists three bullet points where the RAC report makes recommendations not in the BOT/COG report. It omits the rest of the letter that was taken from, which also lists the areas the RAC disagrees with BOT/COG.

That could be misleading, and the RAC is putting out a press advisory to clarify the situation. It seems unprofessional to excerpt the letter in this way. If the authors didn’t want to call attention to the opposition to some ideas, the report could easily instead have simply listed the original list of recommendations (PDF, page 7) from the actual RAC report, like it listed the Board of Trade recommendations.

The WMATA Board is already changing. At least 6 of its 14 members will be new this year, and likely several more as well. The new board has a great opportunity to start governing well. If they succeed, perhaps all of these changes to appointment procedures and the like will be unnecessary. If so, the question will be whether the Secretaries of Transportation can put their own political interests aside and avoid pushing for too many “reforms.”

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David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. 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.