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WMATA Board still shuts out riders on policy issues

A WMATA board committee yesterday approved minimum service standards for Metrorail of 15 minutes peak and 30 minutes off-peak. Spokespeople have been irritated that bloggers and the press wrote about this before hearing all of the facts at the presentation. But because the board's public input process is so broken, there's no other way for riders to have any say in important policies.

Photo by Tancread on Flickr.

Michael Perkins, Unsuck DC Metro, and some others noticed this proposal when it appears in the board agenda online earlier in the week. Michael posted about his fear that even though this didn't mean Metro wasn't about to cut service, it could make it easier to cut it in the future.

Was this accurate, or not? WMATA staff refused to comment further, saying that the proposal hadn't yet been presented to the board.

At the meeting, performance officer Andrea Burnside insisted that these rules are just setting an absolute lower bound, not a target for everyday service. Michael had talked about that in his article, but it doesn't really change the situation; setting a target that's very low and too easy to meet can drag down expectations in the future. Perhaps responding in part to feedback from riders and blogs, federal member Mort Downey asked that the standards be tighter for regular service, though they'll remain undefined.

Last night, spokesperson Dan Stessel emailed Michael to suggest that it would have been better for us to wait until after the presentation, on Thursday. It doesn't appear that anything was wrong in our initial article, but moreover, this misses the point. If Michael and Unsuck and others had waited, the board committee would have approved the policy and never heard from riders about the issue.

Public input process is broken

WMATA's board procedures put riders in a catch-22. Many board members want to hear about a proposal first; after all, they're the board. But when they hear about the proposal at a committee meeting, they then give feedback to staff, and often approve the policy right then.

Committees comprise the entire board, so all members have had their say and voted; approving it at the official "regular board meeting" is then just a formality. The board recently reorganized committees so they only have a subset of members, but other interested members can always attend a meeting, and the committee meeting remains the most important venue for policy discussions.

When do riders get to speak up? Before the presentation, there are only a few days to review the online board packets, and WMATA actually recently shortened the lead time on most presentations from 6 days to just 2 or 3. Some presentations don't go online beforehand at all.

Plus, it's hard to understand a policy just from the powerpoint. It doesn't have all the information, and isn't packaged around being understandable to the public. Bloggers and the press often write about the proposals anyway, but they don't have all the information, and WMATA staff often refuse to talk about the proposals because they haven't gone to the board.

After the presentation, though, it's largely too late.

There are better ways

Other agencies have better processes. Yesterday, for instance, the National Capital Planning Commission also got a presentation on a plan for the L'Enfant Plaza area. But the purpose of the presentation was to brief the board and then issue the plan for public comment. Board members didn't vote on it or ask staff to make changes, they just got a briefing. They will then discuss the plan in more detail later, after residents have been able to read it and weigh in.

WMATA could easily do something similar. Make the presentation, and don't even necessarily post the powerpoints online, but then have a period for public comments. The board would have to avoid giving guidance or taking a vote at that meeting, and bring the issue back later.

Alternately, staff could issue proposals in a more packaged way for comment, before board members see it, and give riders a chance to speak up before it goes to the board. The board members could get an electronic copy first, but they would have to recognize that this means they will hear about proposals before they get a formal presentation.

The Riders' Advisory Council's 2010 report on WMATA governance (whose committee I chaired) recommended a "clear and accessible public input process," and a task force of DC, Maryland, and Virginia transportation officials echoed this recommendation. So far, the WMATA board has not addressed this issue.

Until they do, riders will feel shut out, and bloggers and reporters will have no choice but to write about policies based on limited information in a way that annoys WMATA staff. That's too bad, because there's an easy fix.

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 now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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Is this the first link Unsuck has gotten from GGW?

What Dave Alpert is pushing for is a classic notice and comment rulemaking, and I'm not sure that is appropriate for an entity like WMATA.

I think GGW pushed for the CEO to act more like a CEO. And that is true here as well. Is setting "on time" standards a true function for the board?

That is not to say WMATA should be not be criticized for this decision.

by charlie on Jul 13, 2012 11:24 am • linkreport

A CEO in transit still needs to act within policy guidance provided by the board.

Ideally, the board should be informed both from the needs and desires of the public that it acts on behalf of as well as the possibilities and capabilities of the staff it's ultimately reponsible for.

The process used here did not provide a way for the public to weigh in on how the policy was going to affect them.

by Michael Perkins on Jul 13, 2012 11:32 am • linkreport

Is WMATA supposed to respond to the public concerns? Is that really an issue? Take MWAA. I have a lot of concerns about them. Should they listen?

Again, not a perfect example, but does Walmart's board set guidlines on fresh produce? Pricing? No -- they represent the interests of shareholders.

Classic coporate duty of care/loyalty don't work well with WMATA. However, the old agent theories do -- the board members are agents of the public.

by charlie on Jul 13, 2012 11:50 am • linkreport

I guess this depends on whether you think the Board should care about what the public thinks.

by Michael Perkins on Jul 13, 2012 11:56 am • linkreport

Is that the board's problem -- or the CEO's problem.

Again, somewhat flawed analogy, but the board of Walmart doesn't care about customers or the public.

The board's job is to keep the various jurisdictions happy. It is the CEO's job to keep the customers happy.

That is why you have to go back to agency law to understand the board's role. And let's not pretend that WMATA being immune to the public is a flaw -- that was by design.

by charlie on Jul 13, 2012 12:02 pm • linkreport

charlie: Minimum service standards is a policy. I pushed for the board to set policies, then let the CEO act within those policies. So if they set a minimum service standard, the CEO should have the power to change service levels within the standard. If the board doesn't want the CEO setting service below the standard, they need to set a policy of a higher standard.

The input process could take inspiration from the notice and comment rulemaking, but doesn't have to be exactly the same. The period could be shorter. But the board should be getting input from riders before making decisions.

And yes, I think MWAA should get feedback too, especially for the Silver Line. That board has also long bee too insular.

by David Alpert on Jul 13, 2012 12:05 pm • linkreport

Riders should as well have a seat at the table during contract/union negotiations.
That way there'd be at least *one* interest pushing for reliability and better service rather than job security for Metro workers.

by nbluth on Jul 13, 2012 12:11 pm • linkreport

Government agencies are not corporations.

Government agencies are not corporations.

Government agencies are not corporations.

by andrew on Jul 13, 2012 12:14 pm • linkreport

@Dave; you saw policy, I say operational level decision by the CEO.

Policy is the board telling staff, 3 days notice is not enough, come back with a proposal with two weeks notice and make sure it is public so people can make noise.

Modelling yourself on informnal APA procedures is a horrible idea.

This was the best argument against McDonnel's power grab, BTW. And the federal members. Having local poltiicans on the board at least gives the public someone to complain to. Although I noticed Cathy Hudgins couldn't be bothered to show up.

It is high time we start about killing WMATA and replacing it with a new organization -- and new governance.

by charlie on Jul 13, 2012 12:14 pm • linkreport

I think GGW pushed for the CEO to act more like a CEO. And that is true here as well. Is setting "on time" standards a true function for the board?

Yes, it is the proper role for the Board. These standards are the benchmarks against which the CEO is measured. It is properly the role of the Board to determine those benchmarks. Perhaps it is also even improper for management to have a significant say in that process as their incentive is to set an easy benchmark.

It is high time we start about killing WMATA and replacing it with a new organization -- and new governance.

It's easy to empathize with you, charlie. But I don't think that is a realistic option.

If the Board isn't being responsive, it seems like the best place to go is to the elected politicians.

by WRD on Jul 13, 2012 12:25 pm • linkreport

@Andrew; I completly agree.

However, as members of a board of director you have analogous duties. (care/loyalty) and are in a very different position than "members" of an federal independent agency or commission.

The problem is the only duties they owe are various entities (MD, Virginia, NVTC, DC) rather than a broader duty to the public.

by charlie on Jul 13, 2012 1:52 pm • linkreport

If the board members view their duties so narrowly that they only consider themselves representatives of the local or state jurisdiction governments, then we need some additional board members that represent the riders directly.

On the other hand, the board members could consider the interests of riders.

by Michael Perkins on Jul 13, 2012 2:01 pm • linkreport

Andrew: Thank you!

Just because a rough analogy exists doesn't make it a good analogy.

Information wants to be free, I always say. This is an example of an organization trying to keep that from happening. Never leads to good.

by Geoffrey Hatchard on Jul 13, 2012 2:48 pm • linkreport

This redefinition of "on time" reminds me of a bizarre experience on the Red Line a while back. There was track work. Every five minutes, the loudspeaker came on to explain it.

A man's voice said there was track work and apologized for any delays. Then after a small pause, the loudspeaker came on again, and a woman's voice said there was trackwork but "There Are No Delays."

Again, in five minutes, the man's voice said there was track work and apologized for any delays. The woman came on and said there was track work and "There Are _NO DELAYS_."

Five more minutes. The man's voice came on and apologized, still deadpan, for any delays. The woman's voice came on and said **THERE ARE NO DELAYS!!** ...

by Turnip on Jul 13, 2012 9:05 pm • linkreport

Everyone is focusing on the maxiumum headways. Board member Kathy Porter pointed out during the discussion ‘you get what you measure’ and most will readily agree that 15 minute and 30 minute headways will soon become the New Normal.

But what about the 80/car passenger minimum?

"Crowding on board trains shall not exceed 120 nor fall below 80 passengers per car as measured – on average weekdays, in the peak hour and direction, at the maximum load points"

None of those terms: "average weekday", "peak hour and direction" and "maximum load points" are defined. No mention is made how this will be measured.

Since this criteria is also going to be used to dynamically allocate trains, will we find ourselves off-loaded at the nearest pocket-track station until enough passengers are waiting to make up the minimum or trains eliminated on Fridays from outer stations because they fail the 80 passenger test at 6am or 9:30am?

No, you say? That's just crazy tin-foil-hat talk?

Uhm, we'll see. Metro specified a minimum and the need to dynamically arrange train scheduling without Board input.

We've seen what Metro is capable when left to wander about on their own.

We've seen the numbers Metro generates on everything from MetroAccess ridership to escalator and train performance with the current magic 8-ball system.

And we HAVE been warned ‘you get what you measure’.

by HellOnWheelz on Jul 14, 2012 12:21 am • linkreport

@ nbluth - on point. Word for word.

by H Street Landlord on Jul 15, 2012 11:56 am • linkreport

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