Is the Post too negative on Metro?
Today is the first anniversary of the Metro crash, and the Post comes out negative on the year's safety developments. The headline says efforts have "lost momentum" and the lede says there has been "too little progress."
There could certainly have been more progress, and in particular, it would be nice if the NTSB had gotten a report out already. However, there has been measurable progress, like a more effective Tri-State Oversight Committee and a new General Manager. Kytja Weir's article yesterday, by contrast, said that while progress has been slow, "Metro is finally taking steps to become safer."
The bottom line is that there could have been more progress and there could have been less. The Post's coverage, however, seems to follow a pattern of reporting everything bad that happens at Metro and very little else. Meanwhile, if Maryland MTA, PRTC, Ride On, the Circulator, or other transit agencies do something wrong, it doesn't seem to make it into the Post.
There was the June 18th article, "Metro in a rush to put complex fare increases in place," which talked about how much overtime Metro staff were putting in. The Board deserves some criticism for taking until the last possible moment to decide its budget, but this article could also have read, "Metro working heroically to get fare changes done in record time." Is this speed good or bad? Some of both, probably.
I was also disappointed by the articles responding to the recent "Vital Signs" scorecard General Manager Sarles created to track Metro's performance on various metrics. He decided not just to release data to the Board, as is common, but to open up these metrics to the public. That was a nice gesture of honesty with riders.
But how did the press reward this move toward openness? The Post headline was, Metro system performance fell short in April. Meanwhile, Kytja Weir's Examiner lede was a little less hostile: "Metro is falling behind on many of its performance targets but is largely keeping in line with the past."
As Weir wrote, there are definitely some performance areas that aren't meeting targets. Others are. The thing about targets, however, is that a good organization sets targets that are an improvement from current practice. Otherwise, it's just an exercise in self-congratulation. I don't want Metro staff feeling that they should set low targets just so they can avoid headlines that they're not meeting them.
What's important is the trend line. If Metro starts meeting more targets in the future, that's progress. If not, that's a problem. Not meeting some of them now is just a long-needed admission that there's work to be done.
When I asked WMATA staff about releasing NextBus performance targets, I was advised by other staff (who aren't the ones in charge of NextBus) that there might be reluctance because it could lead to negative press stories about how they aren't meeting the targets. I agreed that was a likely outcome, but argued it would get the negative stuff out of the way and clear the path for positive stories if and when they do improve. But I'm not so sure that's what the Post would write.
WMATA has plenty of problems worthy of scrutiny and pressure. However, they're also doing plenty of things just fine. Metrorail and Metrobus get hundreds of thousands of people where they need to go, and most of the time, they get there on time and safely. Often they don't. Sometimes that's Metro's fault, sometimes it's a consequence of underfunding, sometimes it's the local DOT's fault.
This persistent negativity risks keeping Metro staff shell-shocked and unwilling to talk about what they do. It also leads people to advocate destructive policies just to "shake things up." Yesterday, Unsuck DC Metro endorsed the Virginia effort to make some locally-appointed Board members state-appointed instead, primarily because Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton was able to articulate his own frustrations with the system.
That's terrific. However, I have spoken to most of the current Virginia Board members and they can articulate problems too. They are trying to fix what they can. Even Jim Graham, who gets somewhat-deserved scorn for not riding Metro much, also does indeed know what's wrong with the system.
Unsuck writes, "We are certain that it would be impossible to make the Metro Board any worse than it is." I am certain that's false. The Board could be better. It could be worse. Some members could be a lot better. Some could be worse. The Virginia members who would get kicked off to make room for Bob McDonnell's appointee are generally among the members that could be much, much worse.
It's easy to think of things in black and white. Metro sucks. Blow it up. Replace it with a regional transportation authority. (Isn't that what it is?) Fire everyone. That might feel good but isn't realistic. We need to figure out what's actually wrong and then try to fix those things without screwing up the things that aren't broken. The Virginia Board members aren't the broken part.
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