WMATA governance task force distracts from real issues
On May 12, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) Board of Directors voted to join a task force established by the Greater Washington Board of Trade to review the WMATA governance structure.
This is more a distraction than a useful exercise. There are indeed ways WMATA can and should improve. But restructuring the WMATA Board is unlikely to make any real difference in safety practices, labor relations, customer service, efficiency in spending, or the amount of funding available from jurisdictions and the federal government. We need to be focusing on those issues, not rearranging the chairs.
The independent review will be overseen by a public-private task force that, according to COG's press release, will "compile previous studies and research on transit agency governance models, review WMATA and other current models, and identify best practices and strategies that could be applied in the National Capital Region" while recognizing the "uniqueness" of the region.
Task Force Step 1: Compile previous studies and research on transit agency governance models
A quick visit to the Transportation Research Board (TRB) website and search of Transit Cooperative Research Program (TCRP) reports reveals a comprehensive report on transit agency governance models: TCRP Report 85, the Public Transit Board Governance Guidebook. TCRP Report 85 was developed as part of a larger project called TCRP Project H-24 with the goal to "provide national data and information on public transit board governance and the nature and characteristics of transit board effectiveness."
The report does not recommend one governance model over another. However, it offers insight regarding: the primary role of transit boards, characteristics of effective transit board members, and key influences on transit board effectiveness.
Here is a summary of key findings in TCRP Report 85:
Transit Agency Governance Models Vary (and That's Okay)
The report shows that transit agency governance models vary widely in terms of how board members are selected, who board members are (i.e., elected officials, citizen representatives, etc.), board size, length of terms, and whether or not board members can be re-appointed. The report does not recommend one model over another.
The Primary Role of Transit Boards
According to the report, most transit executives and board chairs agreed that the board's primary role is that of policy maker and "only 5 percent of the CEOs selected the combination of policy making and day-to-day operations." Major activities of board members included: establishing service policies/standards, fiduciary/budget approval, strategic planning, overall fiscal control, and setting organizational priorities.
WMATA and the WMATA board have, at times, struggled to find the line between policy decisions that should be made by the board and day-to-day operational decisions that should be left to WMATA staff. Recent events, investigations, and the high level of media coverage (by both mainstream and social media) of WMATA have likely contributed to the fineness of that line and potential blurring of board member and executive roles, no doubt making both roles (that of board member and of GM) challenging, to say to the least.
Characteristics of Effective Board Members
Following the disclaimer that "each transportation system has different needs and the board should reflect those needs," the report identifies the following characteristics of effective board members: advocate for community, committed to public transit, focused, knowledgeable, open to communication, political, prepared, team player/consensus builder, and understands the board's role.
At times, WMATA board members have been criticized for being too political, and some advocates have questioned the benefit of having elected officials on the board. Yet, the report asserts that "political astuteness" is essential and goes so far as to suggest that "political and civic leaders should be appointed to the board because they can represent the view of transit and business leaders."
The report also emphasizes that interest in transit, support of the agency's mission, and commitment to carry out the duties of a board member are equally important. And, at times, WMATA board members (not all, but a few) have been criticized by advocates for rarely riding Metro and for missing WMATA board meetings.
Key Influences on Board Effectiveness
The report identifies "CEO/general manager leadership" and "board commitment" as the two major influences on transit board effectiveness. Key influences on board chair effectiveness identified by the study include: "board member commitment," the "receipt of timely information," and the "chair's own ability to provide leadership." Again, it's not about the governance model; it's about the people.
Also noteworthy, the "timely receipt of information" is identified as a key influence on both chair and transit board effectiveness. The lack thereof, in my opinion, has posed a far greater threat to the WMATA board's effectiveness than WMATA's governance model.
Task Force Step 2: Review WMATA and other current models
TCRP Report 85 includes cases studies of different transit agency governance models. One could start there. However, I suspect the task force will want to compare WMATA's governance model to the governance models of peer agencies, only some of which are included in the report's case studies.
The question is: How will peers be identified? By annual ridership numbers? By comparable modes (i.e. systems that have rail, bus, and paratransit)? By size and complexity of the service area (i.e., encompassing multiple counties and states)? Or by some combination? How the task force defines WMATA's peers will shape the findings.
It should also be noted that case study research on the "state-of-the-art" or "state-of-the-industry" of peer transit agencies' governance models will not automatically equate to findings on "best practices." The research will simply reflect current practices of peer agencies.
Task Force Step 3: Identify best practices and strategies that could be applied in the National Capital Region
Herein lies the problem. With so little existing research on "best practices" and strategies related to transit agency governance models, how will this exercise result in anything more substantive than a compilation of task force member observations and opinions?
Clearly, there is a need for additional research on transit agency governance models. Perhaps the task force should submit a research recommendation to TRB.
Clearly, the Board of Trade and COG share concerns regarding WMATA governance. But are those shared concerns really about the governance model or something else?
Could the WMATA board be more effective? Yes. Could WMATA executives help the WMATA board be more effective? Yes. Will changing WMATA's governance model solve WMATA's problems? Probably not.
This is a critical time for our regional transit system and its riders. While the task force hypothesizes and theorizes on the most suitable governance model for WMATA, the WMATA board of today (flaws and all) must focus on the work that needs to be done: addressing the FY2011 operating budget shortfall and its implications on transit service, implementing safety recommendations, finding the right general manager, securing adequate capital funding for the next six years, and pursuing dedicated funding so that our regional transit system is safe, efficient, and sustainable. If only a task force could help with these tasks.
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