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Joint WMATA Governance Review Task Force Met With Frustration
How can a task force get input from the public if not enough people show up? Photo by Daquella manera.

How can a task force get input from the public if not enough people are able to show up? Photo by Daquella manera.

This morning’s Board of Trade/Council of Governments task force meeting to gain public input on Metro governance and best practices was a disappointment, expressed many participants.

Here are some of the complaints that resonated among most of the 12 speakers who signed up to offer their input to the task force:

BE INCLUSIVE, NOT EXCLUSIVE

Timing: The meeting was held at 9 a.m., when most people need to be at the office. This made it difficult for the task force to get input from a diverse group of D.C. residents, especially workers, students and families who are unable to leave their commitments to attend a 9:00 a.m. meeting on public transit.  As a result, only about 20 people from the general public showed up. David Alpert of Greater Greater Washington was the first to point out this incongruity, and other speakers echoed his complaint. Probably largely because of this timing problem, most participants who came to speak were involved in public transit professionally. In addition, there was an unpublicized three-minute time limit for each speaker. Many speakers had carefully prepared observations and suggestions, unaware that they would be limited to three minutes, and did not have a chance to make their points.

Task Force Composition: The composition of the task force represents just one interest group: business. As many speakers pointed out, this prevents the task force from truly representing a broad range of stakeholders in their final recommendations.

Issues Addressed: Most participants pointed to funding – not governance – as the “elephant in the room,” saying that an independent review of WMATA governance is merely a distraction from the deeper problem of underfunding. In response, the task force said they hoped to get more input about how governance structure can affect funding in the future.

ELECT, DON’T APPOINT

As far as recommendations are concerned, the most common point was that elected WMATA board members (currently from Arlington, Alexandria, Fairfax County, and D.C.) have consistently shown more accountability to stakeholders and greater transparency in their work than appointed board members (from Maryland).

WMATA board composition: More (or all) elected officials, fewer appointees. This came at a moment when Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell was threatening to withhold $50 million in funding unless he could appoint two of Virginia’s four board members. (Many participants expressed concern that the business lobby behind the task force had the ulterior motive of removing elected officials from the WMATA board.) TCRP Report 85 highlights the effectiveness and responsiveness of elected boards for transit agencies, which in turn reinforce the public’s trust in the system, creating a virtuous cycle of higher ridership and revenues.

Equal access to information: David Alpert pointed out that all board members must be regular riders in order to understand the issues they control, and that presently, the board chairman has too much control over the information available to the rest of the board, which causes information bottlenecks within the board.

Culture of safety: Metro has had an inordinately high number of safety issues over the past year, and several participants expressed concern about a lacking “culture of safety” within WMATA. Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, emphasized this issue, saying that WMATA must hire a top-notch General Manager who prioritizes a safety culture.

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