Greater Greater Washington

Live chat with Mort Downey

Welcome to our live chat with Mort Downey, federal member of the WMATA Board of Directors.

 Greater Greater Washington live chat: Mort Downey(03/17/2010) 
11:50
David Alpert: 
Welcome to our live chat. Mr. Downey will be joining us in a few minutes. In the meantime, please settle in and submit your questions.
Wednesday March 17, 2010 11:50 David Alpert
11:59
Mort Downey: 
Good morning and a Happy St. Patrick's day to all.
Wednesday March 17, 2010 11:59 Mort Downey
11:59
David Alpert: 
Welcome, Mr. Downey. Thanks for joining us.
Wednesday March 17, 2010 11:59 David Alpert
12:00
David Alpert: 
Let's get started. First, any impressions so far from being on the WMATA Board? Is it as you expected?
Wednesday March 17, 2010 12:00 David Alpert
12:02
Mort Downey: 
Depends on what I might have expected. The problems the Board needs to grapple with are significant, but I think my colleagues are really dedicated to the success of the institution and I look forward to working with them. I've also been pestering the staff in a series of briefings, and have found them to be open and sharing in terms of the information we need.
Wednesday March 17, 2010 12:02 Mort Downey
12:02
David Alpert: 
That's great. The federal members are of course really new to the Board. As time goes on, what do you think the role of those members will turn out to be?
Wednesday March 17, 2010 12:02 David Alpert
12:03
Mort Downey: 
Well, our role is somewhat different from others, and I don't know yet who my voting colleague will be. But as you know we are not able to "veto" actions as the jurisdictional members can do, and therefore I expect to focus on the positive issues and try to look at the system from a regional perspective.
Wednesday March 17, 2010 12:03 Mort Downey
12:04
David Alpert: 
Adam L has a question relating to the regional perspective of federal members:
Wednesday March 17, 2010 12:04 David Alpert
12:04
[Comment From Adam LAdam L: ] 
Good afternoon and happy St. Patrick's day. Thank you for taking the time to ask questions. I welcome Federal involvement on the Metro board as I believe that the Federal government has a keen interest in making sure the area's transit system functions. However, I am concerned that as a federal member of the board, your main focus will be on ensuring the viability of the system for Federal employees, i.e. those people who only use the system during the weekday rush. As a matter of philosophy, do you think Metro should function as more of a commuter rail or an actual urban rail system?
Wednesday March 17, 2010 12:04 Adam L
12:06
Mort Downey: 
The challenge for Metro is to do both. The system design and configuration makes it more of a "commuter rail" system, as does the system of pricing. But in conjunction with the many transit partners in the region, it is also a contributior to regional mobility. We need to keep both functions in mind, but also consider who benefits from each type of service and how the costs are properly allocated.
Wednesday March 17, 2010 12:06 Mort Downey
12:08
David Alpert: 
Did the federal government give you any instructions when they appointed you, or just tell you to do whatever you think best? Do they expect anything in particular?
Wednesday March 17, 2010 12:08 David Alpert
12:11
Mort Downey: 
Officially, my letter of appointment from the GSA administrator directs me to apply my independent judgment to the issues. At the same time, I intend to keep close touch with key federal officials, especially those in USDOT, on what their concerns aresafety being foremost among them. Somewhat like the role of an Ambassador, I need to assure that there is two way communication between Metro and its most significant funding partner.
Wednesday March 17, 2010 12:11 Mort Downey
12:12
David Alpert: 
Thanks! A great many riders are frustrated with Metro right now, and express their feelings in comments on blogs as well as elsewhere. For example, there's this comment from DrBubbles:
Wednesday March 17, 2010 12:12 David Alpert
12:12
[Comment From DrBubblesDrBubbles: ] 
I'd like to know whether he appreciates how broad and deep be the unhappiness and dissatisfaction among Metro riders with pretty much every aspect of WMATA (but especially performance and the public attitude of workers at *all* levels); and whether he understands that ridership volume is a poor, if not outright misleading, proxy measure of rider morale.
Wednesday March 17, 2010 12:12 DrBubbles
12:12
David Alpert: 
Do you perceive this frustration from talking to riders as well? And since you have a lot of experience with other transit systems, have others run into this kind of crisis of customer confidence? Did New York's when you were there?
Wednesday March 17, 2010 12:12 David Alpert
12:16
Mort Downey: 
I ride Metro on a very frequent basis, essentially every time I'm heading downtown, and it is clear that riders have a lot to be frustrated about. Turning around that customer attitude will be a high priority for management as we move into the term of the interim and permanent general managers. It can be done, but it's not a mattter of "jollying people along." A real attention to service, conditions of the system and good performance will begin to turn them around. And the comment about ridership is a good one. A transit system that thinks it has captive riders wakes up one day and finds the captives have escaped.

Our experience in New York was somewhat different. The system was so bad at the time I joined it in 1981, there was almost nowhere to go except up, and it took a long time for people to recognize that the experience was getting better. But it did, and it eventually became a matter of civic pride that the trains were back.
Wednesday March 17, 2010 12:16 Mort Downey
12:18
David Alpert: 
Can you name one thing you think New York does (or did, when you were there) better than WMATA, and one thing WMATA does better?
Wednesday March 17, 2010 12:18 David Alpert
12:24
Mort Downey: 
Small point, but at least in the years I was there (and Dave Gunn was there), there was a greater attention to cleanliness and order. Despite the same set of cost pressures that affect all transit systtems, we had a rule that evey train would get a quick cleanup every time it came into an end of the line terminal, rather than letting the newspapers and litter build up. When you do that, when you show respect for the system, you engender greater respect from the passengers. That was part of the anti-graffiti campaign, but it carried over and I'm hopeful that the managers in New York are continuing the tradition.

On the WMATA side, while there may be a lot of frustration with it at times, I think the fare system is substantially more effective than New York's. New York did migrate from the token to the Metrocard, completing that implementation after I left, but there is still great inflexibility in pricing the service to match the value that customers are achieving. New YOrk is moving towards a better system with its new CEO who had worked in London, although I doubt the flat subway fare will ever disappear. WMATA needs to be looking to the steps that will modernize its system also.
Wednesday March 17, 2010 12:24 Mort Downey
12:25
David Alpert: 
Thanks. Actually, speaking of cleanliness, we had a question about that:
Wednesday March 17, 2010 12:25 David Alpert
12:25
[Comment From Steve SSteve S: ] 
Is there more Metro could do to improve cleanliness on the trains and stations? Could Metro be more assertive in its enforcement of the food and drink policy? Do the publishers of the Express and the Examiner do anything to help Metro remove the enormous amount of refuse they create?
Wednesday March 17, 2010 12:25 Steve S
12:25
David Alpert: 
Sounds like one approach is to be very disciplined about cleaning trains at the ends of lines. Anything else you'd like to see WMATA do about this?
Wednesday March 17, 2010 12:25 David Alpert
12:28
Mort Downey: 
Good question and one I haven't got an answer to beyond the issue of cleaning discipline. I believe the Express gives Metro a regular opportunity to communicate in its pages, and we should use it well. Food and drink can be a problem, although I think it is still generally adhered to, and history tells us that you have to be careful in avoiding heavy-handed enforcement. If the steps are taken to keep the system clean, the customers will in fact be responsive.
Wednesday March 17, 2010 12:28 Mort Downey
12:30
David Alpert: 
Cleanliness also came up last year when the Board looked into having vending concessions in Metro stations. The staff wanted to issue an RFP to find out what revenue Metro could get from having different vendors including some kind of frozen food, but the Board decided not to even consider accepting bids for any food items. Some have argued that we should be open minded about this in the budget situation. Any thoughts? Is some limited food that's less likely to get eaten on trains worth thinking about, or opening a pandora's box?
Wednesday March 17, 2010 12:30 David Alpert
12:34
Mort Downey: 
I'm open to the discussion of vending concessions, especially ones that would bring life and convenience to the stations, but would be a bit skeptical on the question of food. Maybe there's a place for take-way gourmet at the end of linesbring home dinner along with the flowersbut something that would in anyway contribute eating on the trains is a problem. In New York, one of the first things David Gunn did was to tear out the hot dog stand that was on the shuttle platform in Times Square. That was almost 25 years ago, and I swear that when i go through that station today I can still smell the hot dogs.
Wednesday March 17, 2010 12:34 Mort Downey
12:36
David Alpert: 
You also mentioned how WMATA's fare structure better captures the value of the service. One of the budget proposals, which some GGW contributors have championed, is to add a "peak of the peak" fare at the busiest hour (or 90 minutes) to better price the busiest time of day and most expensive to provide service. Do you think that's worth doing? Is there a risk of over-value capturing or making things too complex, or is this a good direction to close the budget gap with the least ridership loss?
Wednesday March 17, 2010 12:36 David Alpert
12:41
Mort Downey: 
It is something we will look at. As you know, the Board expanded the options for the fare hearings that begin next week to include all technically feasible and legally implementable ideas that had come in from a variety of directions. I'm sure that participants in this conversation will be sharing their views during that process and I intend to listen. Peak of the peak pricing might have the desired effect of shaving congestion. So would a concentrated effort at staggered work hours, something that gets re-looked every few years.

As a rider who has the flexibility to avoid that peak on many days, I would worry a little as to whether I'd find the parking space I need if I held off to 9:30 or 10:00. The other day I waited til 10 and wound up having to put 12 bucks into a meter to take my trip.
Wednesday March 17, 2010 12:41 Mort Downey
12:42
David Alpert: 
Thanks. Your experience does raise the question of whether WMATA should also raise parking rates if the lots are filling up. It doesn't seem to benefit anyone if the lot gets so full that you don't even consider riding Metro (or paying $12 in the meters that doesn't go to WMATA).
Wednesday March 17, 2010 12:42 David Alpert
12:44
Mort Downey: 
Dpends on whether you consider parking an a la carte service or an integral part of the trip. But it has been my experience here and elswhere that people who complain about fares are usually willing to pay more to store their car than to ride the train or bus.

And when the lot is full you also have the option to risk a parking ticketalso revenue that doesn't go to WMATA!
Wednesday March 17, 2010 12:44 Mort Downey
12:45
David Alpert: 
Good point!

Okay, let's cover some other topics:
Wednesday March 17, 2010 12:45 David Alpert
12:45
[Comment From Michael PerkinsMichael Perkins: ] 
Mr. Downey, what would you like to see from WMATA regarding openness of agency information?
Wednesday March 17, 2010 12:45 Michael Perkins
12:48
Mort Downey: 
From my past experience as an outsider, I would put WMATA about in the middlenot the most open, not the least open. As a policy matter, I generally go to the direction of openness, at least in terms of access to information. I'm glad to see that the Board meetings offer the opportunity for public input. I'd like to be sure that the public has good access to relevant documents as well.
Wednesday March 17, 2010 12:48 Mort Downey
12:49
David Alpert: 
Thanks - we on the blog have had some frustrations in this area, though it's gotten somewhat better. It's probably also something that will really depend on the next GM. What do you think are the most important qualities in the GM?
Wednesday March 17, 2010 12:49 David Alpert
12:53
Mort Downey: 
Finding the new GM is the most important task facing the Board. How that indiviudal performs has everything to do with the future of the system. We have not yet begun the formal search, but have begun conversations about what we are looking for.

The frustrating concern is that no-one, short perhaps of Wonder Woman, will have all the things we needpersonal leadership, executive skills, technical strength and a willingness to take on the tough issues (even to take a bit of abuse for proper decisions). We'll have to balance the decision, with due consideration for how the GM candidate would plan to fill out the rest of the Executive roster.

And, to get the caliber of person we need, the Board will have to make it clear that he or she will have the Board's full support and that the GM will have decision making authority in all personnel and operating matters, coupled with the accountibility for results.
Wednesday March 17, 2010 12:53 Mort Downey
12:55
David Alpert: 
I think that last part about having the Board's support is really important. I've argued that executive skills and customer service should be top priorities, since hopefully the GM can get a first-rate safety person with the technical skill. Others have argued that really the technical skill is more important. Do you lean one way or the other, given that as you say we probably can't have it all?
Wednesday March 17, 2010 12:55 David Alpert
1:00
Mort Downey: 
You can't have it all, so we will have to balance. In other places I've worked at or consulted with, there have been CEOs coupled with operating presidents, and that allows for a range of skills. I've also seen people come at those top jobs with one set of skills and develop the others. What we need to do is continually remind ourselves that all the qualities are important to running a good agency and a good system

Working off one of your comments, there needs to be good technical skills in a number of individuals as well as the safety person, and the safety person has more than a technical job as he or she works to improve the people issues that contribute to the safety culture. As an aside, I was really thrilled the other day to learn that the new president of the Transit Authority in New York had hired a very good career safety person as his chief operating officer for the subway division. That's the kind of skill mix a good system needs.
Wednesday March 17, 2010 1:00 Mort Downey
1:00
David Alpert: 
And that's all the time we have. Sorry we couldn't get to more of the questions.
Wednesday March 17, 2010 1:00 David Alpert
1:01
David Alpert: 
Thanks so much for joining us, Mr. Downey, and for your work on the WMATA Board.
Wednesday March 17, 2010 1:01 David Alpert
1:01
Mort Downey: 
I appeciate all the participants taking the time and look forward to futher conversation.s And for the person who wanted to ask about a disco train, I'm a big beliver in arts and music in the system, but that's where I would draw the line.
Wednesday March 17, 2010 1:01 Mort Downey
1:02
David Alpert: 
That was this question:
Wednesday March 17, 2010 1:02 David Alpert
1:02
[Comment From TyroneTyrone: ] 
What do you think of the idea of having a party/disco train on weekend nights? I think this would be a great fundraiser for the city if we could charge cover.
Wednesday March 17, 2010 1:02 Tyrone
1:02
David Alpert: 
Thanks for your perspective on that one, and thanks again for being here!
Wednesday March 17, 2010 1:02 David Alpert
1:03
David Alpert: 
Readers: what did you think of Mr. Downey's comments? Post your reactions in the comment section of the post, and stay tuned for more great chats coming up.
Wednesday March 17, 2010 1:03 David Alpert
1:03
 

 
 
 
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David Alpert is the founder and editor-in-chief of Greater Greater Washington. 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 daughter in Dupont Circle. 

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