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O'Malley to replace WMATA Board members, wants rules limiting qualifications

This morning, Peter Benjamin shocked his colleagues on the WMATA Board by announcing his imminent departure. Governor O'Malley will be replacing both of Maryland's voting members on the board.


Photo by dr.coop on Flickr.

His colleague, Elizabeth Hewlett, had previously revealed her intention not to continue serving.

Update: O'Malley has announced former Congressman Mike Barnes as Benjamin's replacement.

Benjamin said that Governor O'Malley wanted to start with "a clean slate," which WTOP's Adam Tuss interpreted to mean "essentially the Governor wants to go in a different direction."

What is that different direction? There's not much hint in legislation Governor O'Malley submitted to change the criteria for appointing board members from Maryland. That bill would require regular attendance and transit ridership from WMATA Board members, but also codifies a view of the Board that pushes elected officials out of the process.

That's a bad step, but Benjamin and Hewlett already weren't elected officials who did usually attend meetings.

In the debate over WMATA governance, there are two competing views of the role of the Board. The Riders' Advisory Council and most advocacy groups feel that the Board should include public elected officials who represent their constituents, many of whom are riders, and are responsive to rider needs and concerns.

The Board of Trade instead wants to minimize the role of elected officials and create a Board composed of "experts," who make transit decisions without "politics." The danger of this view is that a bunch of experts are likely to make decisions around what's best for the trains and buses, not the people. "Politics" is just another term for people's concerns being heard.

Local officials also have greater power to advocate for WMATA funding with their home jurisdictions. Since they also make land use decisions, local officials who also participate in the board can better bring transit issues to local deliberations around planning near transit facilities.

WMATA has to make many technical decisions, but the solution is not to put a bunch of technical people on the Board. Instead, the technical people should work for the agency, and the board leave technical decisions to the CEO while reviewing them for policy implications. Elected officials are the right people to make policy decisions.

Despite Maryland officials insisting they planned to listen to public input before making governance decisions, O'Malley has submitted this legislation which codifies the "let experts run it" worldview.

The legislation would require the following from the governor's Maryland appointees:

  1. Writes into the law the existing unofficial practice of letting the governor pick the two voting members.
  2. Forbids elected officials from serving on the board.
  3. Forbids people from serving who worked for WMATA within the last year.
  4. Requires members to have experience in transportation and land use planning, transportation or other public sector management, engineering, finance, public safety, homeland security or law.
  5. Requires members to be regular passengers of bus or rail.
  6. Requires members to submit reports twice a year showing their attendance at board meetings.
Items 3, 5, and 6 are fine, and generally good ideas.

Item 5 should also list MetroAccess along with bus and rail. No current board members ride paratransit regularly, but those who do should be just as qualified to be board members. Item 6 should also stipulate that the attendance reports be publicly released, such as by posting online.

Item 1 codifies existing practice, but a practice that shouldn't be written into law. Formerly, Montgomery and Prince George's Counties appointed the voting members. Then, the state government took over all the funding responsibility for Metro, and in exchange got those appointments.

But what if a future governor decides not to keep funding Metro? The law doesn't require that, so why should it require he get to appoint the voting members?

Item 2 moves in the wrong direction. Maryland should have more elected officials, not fewer. Maryland officials who spoke to the RAC said they already believe the Maryland Contitution's prohibition on elected officials holding "offices of profit" forbids elected officials from serving on the board.

However, elected officials do sit on the Transportation Planning Board, so clearly they can serve on some kinds of boards. The RAC argued in its report for considering the WMATA Board similarly.

Item 4 is wrong-headed. Board members should be chosen for their ability to effectively decide policy issues and represent Maryland, not for specific professional experience. This is so broadly written that it will limit few people, such as allowing anyone with experience in law. But why limit at all?

It's also not clear what "experience" means. Does riding Metro count as transportation experience? If so, then certainly someone should have some transportation experience. But most likely they mean professional experience. Does serving on the TPB or other boards count?

Montgomery alternate Kathy Porter, for example, seems to be a great member so far. She has a Masters in Public Administration from Harvard's Kennedy School, but had she not gotten that specific degree but still served as Mayor of Takoma Park and served on other transportation boards, would she be qualified?

Tommy Wells has a JD degree, but before that his professional background was in social work and running social service organizations. If he hadn't taken a few years to go to law school, would he somehow be unqualified to serve on the board? The general counsel answers detailed legal questions, not board members.

Cathy Hudgins, the current board chair, originally studied math education. Does her subsequent MPA degree really mean the difference between being an unqualified board member and a qualified one?

The Maryland legislature should strip these provisions from the proposed bill entirely.

Meanwhile, none of this explains why O'Malley wanted to replace Benjamin, who would have had no trouble with any of the standards. Observers will be waiting with bated breath to see who O'Malley chooses to replace Benjamin and Hewlett, and what that says about his views on Metro.

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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Interesting, but a bit flawed.

You're making a big assumption: that having local politicians on the WMATA board will make it more "rider" friendly.

I'd pushback and say

1) Local politicians --especially Democrats from Arlington -- have no effective public throttle. Zimmerman isn't elected by the voters of Arlington -- he was picked by the Arlington machine. Same is true for Alexandria. Fairfax is a bit different.

2) "rider friendly" means Graham pushing for cheap bus fares and other special favors.

3) Local politicians are tied into unions and it makes it harder to take on ATU and reform the work rules, pensions and overtime pay that is needed.

Local officials don't have the power of the purse anymore. Only DC has that, and with a 600M deficit Gray isn't going to be dumping money in WMATA for the next few years.

And a minor but telling point. If you are a metroaccess user, you should be BANNED from serving on the WMATA board. MetroAccess is what is killing WMATA and you need someone to set up and say it.

by charlie on Feb 17, 2011 11:30 am • linkreport

I'm all for getting elected officials off the Board. We need experts who put people first, definitely, but I have no issue with transit experts being our Board members.

"Electeds" face an inherent conflict of interest, putting their constituency ahead of the System.

by Redline SOS on Feb 17, 2011 11:47 am • linkreport

I agree with @charlie on 3). Local politicians are mostly in bed with the unions, and we need to confront the ATU, not placate them.

On the other hand, a Democratic governor will be under pressure to appoint people sympathetic to the ATU.

by EJ on Feb 17, 2011 11:53 am • linkreport

And a minor but telling point. If you are a metroaccess user, you should be BANNED from serving on the WMATA board. MetroAccess is what is killing WMATA and you need someone to set up and say it.

That's a very single-minded way of looking at things. You do realize that MetroAccess service is legally mandated by the federal government, right? I think that the board could benefit from having a constant voice from the disabled community.

Although I won't contest that MetroAccess's costs need to be brought under control, it provides an immensely valuable service to the people who use it.

by andrew on Feb 17, 2011 12:41 pm • linkreport

On the other hand, a Democratic governor will be under pressure to appoint people sympathetic to the ATU.

A Republican governor would face the exact same pressures. Not all union members are democrats.

by andrew on Feb 17, 2011 12:41 pm • linkreport

Actually, these rules aren't that bad. I am not sure the Board should be elected. That itself seems at odds with wanting the board to be professional.

So, I don't care much about 1 & 2. 3-6 seem ok.

Perhaps 5 should be a requirement to use WMATA as a whole. Perhaps 5 could mention a minimum use (4 trips a month?, 10?)
6 could include a requirement to also publish the member's WMATA use.

by Jasper on Feb 17, 2011 12:54 pm • linkreport

@andrew; sorry to be a tea-partier on MetroAccess, but the "disabled community" deserves the absolute bare minimum of service and it certainly doesn't deserve a voice on the board.

In a few years, MetroAccess is going to cost more than rail subsidy.

Does it provide a valuable service for its users? yes. Has it turned into the monster that is eating metro -- yes. And it is another reason to kick politicians OFF the board.

@EJ; I'm not trying to be an ATU basher but it clear on both pensions and overtime issues significant changes need to be made with ATU. I'd argue there is also a culture clash, and I don't know whose fault that is. My gut tells me it is the overtime rules that drives a lot of the conflict.

Unsuck has a good post up on the need for Sarles to lead. This is very true. We need to be removing power from the board and giving it to the CEO.

by charlie on Feb 17, 2011 12:54 pm • linkreport

What about having one elected official and one expert? Personally, I'd have expert be more narrowly defined to transportation and land use (though I think land use is a harder sell to people who don't read this blog). This way, you get the voice of the people and also a more objective point of view.

This seems to be an odd power grab for O'Malley. He appears to be codifying these positions as being beholden to the governor. The question is why.

by Steven Yates on Feb 17, 2011 12:54 pm • linkreport

@ charlie You assume that the disabled community are a bunch of greedy individuals who will happily destroy the system for their own convenience.

Having input from someone who actually uses Metroaccess could lead to better service and cost containment. It also lends credibility to WMATA if they scale it back.

by jcm on Feb 17, 2011 1:03 pm • linkreport

@ jcm; well, whether or not they are greedy they are destroying the system. 90M dollar increase over 10 years. Easily over half a billion dollars to move wheelchairs around. Sorry, I don't have any sympathy.

(and at the rates they are paying, it would be cheaper to pay doctors to make house calls)

by charlie on Feb 17, 2011 1:11 pm • linkreport

It's not clear to me whether this is a good bill or not. It does some helpful things. Some of the bads here are, in my opinion, either not so bad or could play out to be either good or bad.

Using the platform here to fight the bill is, in my opinion, not too helpful. The way I read it, there aren't a lot of other options in front of the legislature. Killing this bill won't replace it with a better one. If it dies, we're at the mercy of the governor anyway. If it passes and we, risk pissing off a whole bunch of people who should be on our side on the funding issue.

Who is O'Malley likely to appoint? I don't know. Who does O'Malley listen to on this issue? Montgomery County Council? Those are the people who should feel our pressure, at least at first.

I think focusing on this might be missing the forest for the trees. The larger issue is getting Metro a dedicated source of operating funding, preferably through an increase in the gasoline tax OR a percentage of Montgomery-PG sales tax with no sales tax increase (or some combination of the two).

If the bill furthers the dedicated source issue, even with its downsides, it's worth it.

by WRD on Feb 17, 2011 1:15 pm • linkreport

@charlie

Like the economics of it or not, Paratransit is mandated and it will be provided in some form or another. If you want some reform to happen, fine, but you might want to step back and realize that the way to get some kind of reform ISN'T to demonize the disabled people who use the service and dismiss the service as "half a billion dollars to move wheelchairs around."

by MLD on Feb 17, 2011 1:30 pm • linkreport

@MLD; from what I understand, paratransit is mandated but WHO delivers it isn't. It could be done outside WMTA by the local jurisdictions.

PAratransit service could also be signfically cut down and still be within ADA guidelines

WMATA is doing a poor job managing the contract with metroacess -- isn't Catoe handing that company now -- which is another reason to remove it.

Finally, you could raise fares to the point where usage drops off.

" If you think about Apple, they don’t ask anybody. The idea of users as designers is a catastrophe."

by charlie on Feb 17, 2011 1:45 pm • linkreport

Has anybody ever floated the idea of decoupling paratransit from Metro?

Is there a reason why this is a service provided by WMATA instead of the local jurisdictions?

Although I could not disagree any more strongly with Charlie, I can certainly see the argument that it's a local (rather than regional) issue, and distracts from WMATA's core mission.

It also helps for political reasons to have the two budgets appear as separate line items.

by andrew on Feb 17, 2011 1:46 pm • linkreport

" If you think about Apple, they don’t ask anybody. The idea of users as designers is a catastrophe."

This is patently false. Although Apple thankfully does not fall victim of design-by-committee, they are infamous for doing extensive user-driven QA testing on their products.

by andrew on Feb 17, 2011 1:54 pm • linkreport

MetroAccess has become a low cost taxi system for people who know how to game the system. Abolish it. Other cities use the existing taxicab infrastructure to meet those needs with a set fare. MetroAccess is not required by ADA.

There's no reason to pay people full salaries and maintain a separate fleet of cars with absolutely no control over expenses. They aren't even trying to reduce costs by using efficient routes.

by eb on Feb 17, 2011 2:37 pm • linkreport

Supervisor Catherine Hudgins has been a regular rider of Metro. And Fairfax Connector. She has been a computer programmer and an analyst at ATT&T. She worked for the Electoral Board, a federal security agency, was a party chairman, and a PTA president. As a Fairfax County Committe Member she always went out into her neighborhood and did her precinct work. As an elected official she will see to her constitituents needs and concerns on the Metro Board.

by JoAnne Queenbaum on Feb 17, 2011 2:41 pm • linkreport

@JoAnne Queenbaum; just the sort of background we need to ask penetrating questions of WMATA staff, with a detailed understanding of transit options.

by charlie on Feb 17, 2011 2:59 pm • linkreport

Here's the code on paratransit:
http://www.fta.dot.gov/civilrights/ada/civil_rights_3906.html

If you run bus service you have to run complementary paratransit service, that requirement is in the ADA. WMATA can't just say "well local jurisdictions can do it" because WMATA runs the fixed-route service.
Sec. 37.121 says:
Except as provided in paragraph (c) of this section, each public entity operating a fixed route system shall provide paratransit or other special service to individuals with disabilities that is comparable to the level of service provided to individuals without disabilities who use the fixed route system.
Paragraph C excludes commuter bus, commuter rail, and intercity rail.

WMATA runs paratransit service an so do Ride-on, PG County, Howard Transit, ART, and DASH. Some of these are integrated with MetroAccess, some are separate.

The way the service is provided and the contract could be changed to make it cheaper I'm sure. I don't think demonizing disabled people is the best way to make that happen.

You can't raise the fares until nobody uses it - the fares have to be under double the fixed-route fare I believe.

by MLD on Feb 17, 2011 3:11 pm • linkreport

Thank you MLD for introducing some factual information into the discussion re: ADA complementary paratransit.

@Charlie: We get that you hate people with disabilities. We get that you hate paratransit. Enough already!

As a person with a disability who does not use paratransit but who knows other people who rely on it because they are truly unable to access the fixed route service, I wish you would stop hiding behind a first name only and actually stand behind your hate-filled comments with your full identity.

For others who might be interested, here's a link to some additional factual information about what ADA complementary paratransit is, who is eligible, etc.
http://projectaction.easterseals.com/site/PageServer?pagename=ESPA_faq_what_is_ADA_paratransit

by Penny Everline on Feb 17, 2011 4:03 pm • linkreport

People here should take a hard look at what Arlington County has done over the last few years to get out of MetroAccess as a service provider. Part of it included providing more accessible ART service closer to eligible customers, STAR and accessible taxi cabs. My understanding is that their costs are significantly lower now

If someone with more knowledge on the details of the changes would add info...

by Some Ideas on Feb 17, 2011 11:31 pm • linkreport

As noted above in the links provided by MLD and Penny Everline, jurisdictions providing transit service are obligated under federal regulations implementing the ADA (which is a Civil Rights law) to provide paratransit for those who can't use fixed route service due to a disability. MetroAccess is the ADA paratransit service designated by the local jurisdictions belonging to the WMATA compact. The federal regulations give considerable latitude as to how the ADA paratransit service is structured. They can be contracted out or operated in-house. They can be operated as one big service area (like MetroAccess) or split into zones. They can charge a flat fare (as MetroAccess does now), charge double the fixed route fare (as MetroAccess will do starting February 27th), or use a zone fare system. They can be a separate service with a separate fleet (most are set up this way) or have bus routes deviate to pick up people in front of their homes (PRTC's OmniLink). Each option has its own advantages.

Many transit systems aggressively pursue bus stop and pathway improvements that make those stops accessible to people with disabilities. Most paratransit users need this service because they can't get to the stop. The buses here are all accessible. WMATA is very interested in this strategy - but the bus stops belong to the jurisdictions.

Every jurisdiction also can offer services targeted to people with disabilities that are more attractive and efficient - effectively drawing those trips away from ADA systems like MetroAccess. Arlington has its STAR program for Arlington residents who are certified eligible by MetroAccess. Rides are provided by dedicated vehicles when they can be grouped together. Just over half the rides haven't been grouped together and are assigned individually to taxis with specially trained drivers. Fairfax's FASTRAN program groups riders headed towards adult day health care sites, day support programs for those with intellectual disabilities, dialysis, and senior centers and assigns those rides to their fleet. Several MD municipalities have their own local programs targeted towards senior citizens. These all are more efficient (cost per hour or cost per ride) than MetroAccess and the riders prefer those services.

Some people with disabilities need ADA paratransit to commute to work, reach medical specialists who aren't in their municipality, and reach other destinations that we all use from time to time (for example, Visit Mom!). Should MetroAccess be continued as currently structured? That is a separate question.

by Steve Yaffe on Feb 18, 2011 11:30 am • linkreport

I have no doubt that the largest obstacle to actual reform of WMATA is the obstructionist union and the relationship that comes from elected officials on the board. I'm actually pro-union, except when the union is so dysfunctional that the system is unsafe and breaking down as a result. Does anyone actually believe WMATA would have 1/4 of the problems it has if it was a private company? Imagine WMATA if they actually were held accountable for providing a fair service! The board today isn't concerned with real reform because they know it's impossible with the union as it is. NOBODY is ever held accountable for incompetence, to even try is considered harassment.

What WMATA needs is a top to bottom overhaul of employees. Every employee should have to prove their value through performance reviews by independent evaluators, and only then should they be retained. Teh employees "working" there today act as if it's their right, it's not, and when a person screws up and aren't held accountable it only solidifies their belief. THIS is what we have at metro, and it will never change without massive overhaul of personnel.

The system isn't broke, the people are.

by Me on Feb 18, 2011 3:02 pm • linkreport

@Me--

Your view is too simplistic. Many of the problems at Metro stem from poor management. I encourage you to read the independent escelator/elevator repair report (from WMATA's website here). Yes, it's long. Yes, it's boring at times. But read it anyway. It details how bad supervisors and management affects results.

Yes, the union is a big problem. Pensions, healthcare, and OPEBs especially are crushing burdens. But management needs to get just as much scrutiny.

by WRD on Feb 18, 2011 3:16 pm • linkreport

Many very good points raised here. I'd like to tackle just 2. Metro is in financial trouble and it seems as though the troubles grow worse everyday. Peter Benjamin was the CFO before he retired. You would think he would have understood the need to get a handle on the fiscal situation and do something about it from the board perspective, since the board seems to be running everything. Did he do that? I'll leave that answer to you. From where I sit, it looks like he just did a good job of giving interviews and helping to select a GM who said he didn't want the job permanently when he first came. So what changed his mind? Maybe the Governor is on to something here. I wonder whether he will return Metro's computer equipment; guess the jury is still out on that one too. As far as the ADA issue is concerned, I think Steve probably understands it better than most. While there is nothing wrong with providing transportation options for the disabled, I think Metro has gone overboard with its interpretation of who is eligible for transport. The notion that someday some of the riders will use regular transit is a joke, that will never happen in my lifetime. Why give up a shared ride with a few folk and ride a regular line bus? Metro has lift equipped buses too but many people choose MetroAccess. I wonder why.

by TYB on Feb 22, 2011 3:45 pm • linkreport

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