Greater Greater Washington

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Should there be two WMATA Boards?

What is the WMATA Board supposed to be?


Photo by MikeOliveri on Flickr.

Should it be a high-level policy board, which only looks at big picture issues and leaves specifics to the General Manager? Or should it be delving into decisions of staff to try to make sure any problems are rooted out?

Should it be made up of a number of elected officials, like a legislature, which listens to citizens but is perhaps somewhat inefficient and fractious? Or should it be a streamlined operation which makes decisions quickly, like a corporate board, but perhaps with less public involvement and issues and disagreements hidden?

Clearly, there's a disconnect between my view of the WMATA Board and that of many commenters here. Then I realized: we're talking about two totally different boards. Or rather, two totally distinct functions.

On the one hand, WMATA would indeed benefit from a board that conducts active oversight. The board should have the power to demand information and also change in any aspect of Metro's operations, including safety, the conduct of staff, customer service, NextBus not working, and so on. This board needs to not just have the power to make recommendations, like the TOC or NTSB, but to insist on changes.

The ideal person for this board would be an independent individual not tied to politics, and probably a transit expert. Many could be appointed by chief executives of cities, states, and/or the nation. There shouldn't be a jurisdictional veto. The Chair should probably stay constant over a period of time.

On the other hand, WMATA also is an interjurisdictional entity that has to balance the needs of three states, especially when it comes to fares and budgets as well as service patterns on rail and bus. It's important for riders to have a voice, and for the board to listen to riders.

Elected officials work well on this board, because they respond to the public's concerns. However, in rightly pushing for the interests of their jurisdiction, they also generate more gridlock and contentiousness. But as I told the WMATA Governance Task Force, democracy is the right approach to these issues, warts and all. The rotating chair and jurisdictional veto maintain balance among the three.

What about splitting them up?

There could be two boards for WMATA, a policy board and an oversight board. The policy board would decide fares, budgets and service patterns. The oversight board would monitor the operations of the agency and have power to enforce them.

The policy board would be more akin to a legislature. The legislature sets policy, and decides budgets, but doesn't get into the details of executive operation most of the time. When Hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans, we didn't really blame Congress except indirectly. The primary responsibility was on the President and his executive agencies. The oversight board would fill the role of the executive.

The policy board could have elected officials or people responsible for budgets, like Chris Zimmerman or Jim Graham. In addition, it should include elected representatives from riders. Perhaps its composition could be 2 DC, 2 Maryland, 2 Virginia, 2 federal, and 3 elected rider reps.

Meanwhile, the transit experts, like Mort Downey or Gordon Linton, would serve on the oversight board. That could have more of the executive-selected members, including one from the Governor of Virginia if Virginia decides to grant one. DC's reps would be selected by the Mayor. There would again be 2 DC, 2 Maryland, 2 Virginia, and 2 Federal. Perhaps the head of the Tri-State Oversight Committee could serve ex officio as well.

The oversight board would need some authority to enforce the changes it sees necessary. Perhaps the oversight board can fire the GM if it feels it necessary, and both boards would jointly hire a GM. The inspector general could report to the oversight board. Perhaps there are other powers it should have as well.

To keep the two from becoming too separate, the members of one board could act as alternate members in meetings of the other. Today, half the members are voting and half alternate; instead, everyone could be voting on one board and alternate on the other.

After recent safety incidents, some board members complained that even they had a hard time getting information on safety. One member said he found out more about the derailment at Farragut North from reading Matt Johnson's posts than he did from staff. Why? Because staff said they were forbidden from discussing an ongoing NTSB investigation publicly, and the board is public.

Ultimately, they were able to get information from staff under strict secrecy in executive session, but that prevented the board from pushing for specific policy changes to address the safety issues in the more than a year between the crash and the NTSB's conclusions. The NTSB should change this policy, but that's a larger debate. Meanwhile, an oversight board, while it should be public as much as possible, could hear more information in executive session.

Both boards could be part of the same board, which is largely the way things work today. But today's system runs into problems. The veto and rotating chair are maintain balance when it comes to fare policy but does slow down the board's ability to take decisive action on operations. Elected officials are more responsive to riders, but also have other commitments that reduce their ability to spend enormous amounts of time delving into the depths of WMATA. Some jurisdictions choose reps more suited to the policy role while others choose reps more focused on oversight.

Right now, the Board fills both roles but only about halfway. Two separate boards could ensure that each role is handled fully, by people suited to the task. The oversight board could be better at oversight, and with rider representatives and more elected officials, the policy board could be even more responsive to rider needs.

David Alpert is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Greater Greater Washington and Greater Greater Education. 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 loves the area which is, in many ways, greater than those others, and wants to see it become even greater. 

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Not a bad idea - however, I'd increase the number of "real" riders from 3 to at least six. It really burns me up (as well as many others, I'm sure) to have non-riders making decisions that won't affect them in the least because they drive. The fewer people on the board that don't ride, the better, and the more actual riders, the better.

by Ben Schumin on Jul 28, 2010 12:22 pm • linkreport

Hmm, interesting, but I think you misunderstand the role of a corporate board. They also aren't supposed to be do line item decisions. Their job is to make very broad policies and provide very broad oversight.

I would look at the terms duty of care and duty of loyalty -- which is what board members owe the corporation and its owners. What are the duties of loyalty of a WMATA member? What are the duties of care?

Beyond that is agency theory -- perhaps way too complex.

Gets into the mess of "stakeholders" which is an imaginary concept but perhaps one that should exist when you look at something like WMATA.

And, of course, I think Gov. McDonnel would agree with you.

by charlie on Jul 28, 2010 12:25 pm • linkreport

This is getting kind of bizarre. Why can't we just admit that the formula they have now would work if there were not systemic problems? It seems to me Metro's model is pretty close to the county manager model that Arlington uses. It works pretty well here.

by Lou on Jul 28, 2010 12:26 pm • linkreport

Dave, you're a great blogger and transit advocate, but this is a terribly complicated idea. The one thing the greater DC area doesn't need is more layers of bureaucracy and boards to fight with each other over the details of policy implementation. It would be better, in fact, to remove the board as presently constituted and require local chief executives and representatives of the VA/MD governors to sit on the board ex officio--with the caveat that they only get representation if they pay up.

The real problem with WMATA is a lack of dedicated, independent funding. The system shouldn't be self-sufficient in the sense that riders pay for everything, but its future shouldn't be reliant on the whims of voters in far western Virginia either.

by PM on Jul 28, 2010 12:32 pm • linkreport

Alternative: more power to the Tri-State Oversight Committee.

Hilarious recaptcha: more paperwork

by varun on Jul 28, 2010 12:35 pm • linkreport

I don't think more complexity will help or fix WMATA. The morons can't even handle their current level of complexity as evidenced by them ignoring circuit errors since the 1990's and going on manual to bypass the automatic control that was behaving in a way to deal with the circuit errors. These are dim people that don't understand what they are doing it seems like, admittedly from the outside.

Less complexity, more results focused, and much sterner treatment of terrible employees.

by James on Jul 28, 2010 1:03 pm • linkreport

I agree that a more streamlined approach would benefit WMATA. Two boards makes things even more complicated than they already are. As Lou mentioned, the problems here have been related to the culture at WMATA. Adding another board isn't going to fix that.

by Teyo on Jul 28, 2010 1:31 pm • linkreport

My first reaction, like some of the above commenters, was that making the WMATA bureaucracy more complex would be a hard sell and possibly counterproductive. But the real test, of course, is how well a dual-board model would work. Are there any governing boards out there, for transit systems or anything similar, that look like this?

by srfeld on Jul 28, 2010 1:40 pm • linkreport

Beef up the existing oversight body.

It's not something the board should be doing, anyway. That said, one board member admitted that he didn't even know what the Tri-State Oversight Committee was. Even if they see themselves as purely a policy body, not knowing what the oversight mechanism is inexcusable.

by hmmmm on Jul 28, 2010 1:44 pm • linkreport

I think your participation on the RAC has gone to your head. The Metro Board has worked reasonably well for over 30 years and the addition of federal representation should enhance the regional functioning of the group. Let the federal sector complete its Board group and lets see how the Board functions. Perhaps Metro Board members should have term limits.

by Interested on Jul 28, 2010 1:53 pm • linkreport

I'n not able to think of an organization that is more poorly run than WMATA. If WMATA were a private company it would have gone out of business years ago. I used to be a big proponent of public transportation but that enthusiasm has withered as I've learned more about WMATA and followed all the problems of Metro over the years. WAMATA does not need another board. It needs the current board to designate a great management team and then get out of the way. Give the management team full authority to hire and fire as needed. The employee union needs to be dissolved. Just like the teachers union in DC, the union is one of the largest impediments to change and without change, and alot of it, the system will continue flounder and more people will die. Does anyone have the will to stand up to the union? I doubt it.

by Jeff on Jul 28, 2010 1:55 pm • linkreport

@Jeff

With people like Craig Simpson contributing to this blog, I doubt there would be any posts on here talking of dissolving the union.

by Teyo on Jul 28, 2010 2:02 pm • linkreport

@Jeff

I completely agree with you. The WMATA union should be ousted from WMATA, disbanded, whatever is necessary to be able to deal with poor performers ( let alone the true criminals that they love harboring )and control their ridiculous amounts of compensation.

by James on Jul 28, 2010 2:59 pm • linkreport

So the solution is to create yet another layer of Metro/WMATA bureaucracy? Oy vey.

Fire the hacks on the Board, e.g., Graham and Brown.

Fire any Board member that doesn't use Metro on at least a semi-regular basis (e.g., at least weekly).

Fire any WMATA manager that impedes TOC's investigations, inspections, audits, etc.

Fire incompetent workers.

Fire Metro's entire customer service and press relations staff.

Reform the union contract to make it more flexible for management to get stuff done (e.g., the idiotic rules for fixing escalators and elevators).

Put people on the Board that have management experience, preferably in transportation issues.

Hire Metro managers that understand the concept of public service and customer service.

Metro's problem isn't insufficient bureaucracy. It's incompetent bureaucracy.

by Fritz on Jul 28, 2010 3:14 pm • linkreport

Good Lord, yes. The union is clearly responsible for the track circuit failures, the chronic systemic underfunding, and the lack of effective oversight. They should all be hung, shot, and hung again. That'll fix everything.

After all, without teachers unions all of God's children would be above average too, right?

by Nate on Jul 28, 2010 3:19 pm • linkreport

@Nate

Clearly, students in DC are not doing as well as in other parts of the country not because of poor schools or poor teachers but because they're just dumber than other kids, right? That seems to be what you're implying.

And no, the union is not directly responsible for the circuit failures or lack of oversight, but I do partially blame them for Metro's financial situation given that they're more interested in getting raises than making sure that the system has the money it needs in an economic downturn. And if you try to fire the unionized worker who ignored malfunction alarms or did a bad job on safety oversight, the union will defend that worker and you'd not only have to hire him back, but give him back-pay too.

So yes, the union is to blame for a large part of Metro's problems. Remember, when you get a parasite, it's not the parasite that kills you, it's the starvation that does you in.

by Teyo on Jul 28, 2010 3:24 pm • linkreport

@Teyo

I'm not implying anything about DC students. You are suggesting that but for the teacher's union all of the myriad problems plaguing DC public schools (many of which begin far from the classroom) would resolve themselves, and a new era of student achievement would dawn.

Extending the metaphor to WMATA, but for the union all Metro employees would be conscientous, courteous and more concerned with the public good than with protecting themselves and their turf. As to the funding issue, whatever you imagine the difference between union and non-union salaries to be, it pales in comparison to the backlog of money needed to modernize and maintain the Metro system.

Should some employment reforms be part of a comprehensive overhaul of WMATA? Yes, but a generic anti-union screed does nothing to advance the discussion.

by Nate on Jul 28, 2010 4:24 pm • linkreport

Clearly the Union is not to blame for all the problems of WMATA. There is never one single problem when an organization is in such poor shape. But the Union is one of the top 3 largest problems with WMATA. The place is almost totally unionized except for a handful of upper management who can be fired and serve as scapegoats when something goes wrong. If the unions benefits were not so outrageous, the capital budget wouldn't have to be raided every time you turn around and there would be money available to fix some of the safety issues that plague the system. If we are honest with one another and look around at other organizations, there are very few heavily unionized organizations that are successful, especially in the service industry.

@Teyo's example of the parasite that eats away at you is right on target. I've seen Metro gradually get worse every year since it started running the subway over 20 years ago. Constant gradual downward progression over many years. I remember the day when almost everyone was proud of Metro. Now I don't know anyone who is. Things have gotten so bad people are being killed. Will we ever admit that the union is one of the root problems or do we keep treating the symptoms and let this situation keep getting worse. We need someone like Michelle Rhee to lead a reform of WMATA similar to what she is doing for the DC public schools.

by Jeff on Jul 28, 2010 5:31 pm • linkreport

I'm confused. In one paragraph you say "There shouldn't be a jurisdictional veto" in the next you say "WMATA also is an interjurisdictional entity that has to balance the needs of three states". That's why the jurisdictional veto exists. The jurisdictional veto is to keep two of the jurisdiction, in the words of late Cody Phanstiehl, "from ganging up on other".

by Sand Box John on Jul 28, 2010 10:21 pm • linkreport

Someone suggested on one of these threads that the Board needs some staff. I think that would be a much better approach than the two-boards approach. Another way to do it would be to expand the role (and budget and staffing) of the IG, and have the IG report to the Board Chair & Vice-Chair.

The analogy with the corporate boards (both policy and oversight) is valuable. But stepping back, lets not forget how many corporate boards are doing terrible terrible jobs. All the rhetoric here about "Fire them all" and "If Metro was a corporation it would have been fixed, or destroyed, by the magic invisible hand" makes me think some of you have not read a paper in the last four years. You want to tell me that Catoe and Graham have been held to account less than Nardelli and Blankenship and Hayward?

And finally: I am certainly dismayed by the fact that arbitration has turned into a one-sided story. We need to understand what is going on there better - has WMATA lost the ability to make a case in arbitration due to lousy legal staff? Is the arbitration process stacked?

But the union demagoguery is about as useful as the "Fire everyone and dump the rail cars in the river" attitude.

Are there any US rail operations (public OR private) with as many employees as WMATA rail that are not unionized?

How are WMATA rail operators and rail maintenance paid, relative to those folks in other jurisdictions? Relative to freight railroads?

I don't know the answers to those questions - I bet someone here does. But they would be illuminating here in light of all the rhetoric.

by DavidDuck on Jul 28, 2010 10:30 pm • linkreport

Catoe and Graham have been held accountable?

You're kidding right?

Catoe quit before the shite hit the fan, so he was able to leave with accolades about what a great job he was doing and how tough it was.

Graham's term as Board chair ended and he's running for Council reelection.

Exactly how was either held accountable?

Wake me when there's congressional hearings where they are based in front of a live TV audience or when a Board member or top WMATA manager is actually fired (and not the usual "he resigned to spend more time with his family" or "he resigned to pursue other interests". A flat-out "he was fired").

Metro needs no more coddling.

by Fritz on Jul 29, 2010 8:41 am • linkreport

Fritz,

You avoid my question.

Blankenship still runs Massey Energy.

Hayward still works for BP.

These two are at the top of corporations whose shoddy (likely criminal) approach to safety killed a dozen or two.

Nardelli, who as far as I know killed no one, got $210 Million in severance for turning Home Depot into a crappy store while Lowe's gained ground on them.

I simply put this out there to counter the rhetoric that if WMATA was a private corporation, it would have been better run.

The question of how to improve WMATA is too important for tiresome rhetoric about free markets and unions.

by DavidDuck on Jul 29, 2010 9:15 am • linkreport

Massey Energy's CEO has a horrible reputation and his company will be paying out tons of money in fines and civil lawsuits.

Hayward is being fired by his company (although on extremely nice terms). BP will also be paying out tons of money in fines and civil lawsuits and its share price has taken a beating.

Jim Graham got....what exactly?

John Catoe got....what exactly?

Were they hauled before Congress and grilled? Were they hauled before the DC Council and lambasted? Were there public forums where they were accosted by families of the victims? Was there intensive media coverage of how they operated and their decision-making process?

Nope.

I'm not saying a private corporation would have done things in an ideal way. But I also find extremely tiresome the WMATA apologists who are, essentially, saying "Let's move on and stop beating up on WMATA b/c they're nice and they're trying to do the best they can."

In the wake of the NTSB report, that just doesn't cut it anymore and needs to be laughed out of the room. There's no moving on until there's a bunch of moving out at WMATA.

by Fritz on Jul 29, 2010 11:30 am • linkreport

More bureaucrazy is never the answer.

by Jasper on Jul 29, 2010 11:46 am • linkreport

Federal tax dollars paid for the overwhelming share of the cost of building Metro. The system is vital to the core operations of the Federal Government.
Yet the system itself is not bound by the recommendations of the federal government's National Transportation Safety Board. The Feds should take more ownership of safety problems.

It's easy to point the finger of blame, but, as David points out, this is very much an organizational problem.

Perhaps the Maryland and Virginia delegations could sponsor legislation to mandate federal control over Metro safety issues. The Republicans, who always seem to oppose unfunded mandates, might even support an additional amount of safety-related funding if there's a government mandate behind it. After all, their staffers and their tourist constituents use the system every day.

Another idea, mentioned earlier, is to beef up TSOC. In any case, we need to find someplace for the safety buck to stop. Right now, that buck doesn't stop anywhere.

by Mike Silverstein on Jul 29, 2010 3:11 pm • linkreport

There is no need to add a body that is supposed to already exist. What you have described is essntially a management team, (the oversight board) which should be made up of department heads such as the GM, Operations, Safety, Training, Maintenance, Customer Service,IG, etc. and the current board. It seems to me that, among other things, WMATA is missing an effective management team. The funding needs to be fixed, the political will to establish and maintain an EFFECTIVE transit system needs to exist, (and that comes from cititzens not politicians), and an effective management team needs to exist.

by Anonymous on Aug 1, 2010 4:50 pm • linkreport

Polices, protocol procedures, expenditures, but no plan for the future was in place for repair/upkeep for the system from Engineers I guess.

A contractor usually after a project will provide a projection on what amount of money needs to be saved yearly for system repair/maintenance. Where is the projection? It seems the employees ate it up with paid overtime.

If this were my company, I would hire more employees and pay no overtime and force those who can retire out.
Employees at WMATA retire then come back at high salaries stretching WMATA's budget.

If you hire back retirees it should be only to train.

Ask what salaries these mechanics and retired Train Operators are making now stretching out Metro's Budget!

by Deege on Nov 17, 2010 11:46 pm • linkreport

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