MWAA: A public authority in even more need of scrutiny
This afternoon, DC Council Chairman Kwame Brown is holding a roundtable on the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority and Gray's nomination of Warner H. Session and Shirley Robinson Hall as 2 of DC's 3 members of its board. Below is a draft of my testimony.
The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, known as WMATA or Metro, has gotten the lion's share of scrutiny for its governance practices since its June 2009 crash. That attention was indeed deserved and has already led to some meaningful improvements at its Board of Directors.
However, we must not overlook another very important transportation agency with even greater governance problems: the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, or MWAA. While MWAA's problems have received little scrutiny, this agency also holds great power over residents' everyday lives, yet operates with a remarkable lack of transparency or accountability and in many cases makes decisions distinctly damaging to the District of Columbia.
I hope that you will ask the District's nominees to the MWAA Board of Directors how they will increase transparency and ensure that the interests of the District are better safeguarded than they have in the past.
On transparency and accountability, the MWAA Board is one of the worst in the region. The times, dates, and locations of their board meeetings are not posted online. Agendas are not made available to the public, nor are minutes of their meetings.
Certainly no recordings are available via streaming audio or video or on cable TV. Contrast this to the DC Council, the WMATA Board, and many others which post their schedules, agendas and actions and broadcast their meetings.
Furthermore, the MWAA Board makes most decisions in executive session, behind closed doors, then emerges only to ratify those decisions publicly. This contravenes guidelines and possibly even laws concerning eligible topics for executive session, offending good governance practices.
In years past, the authority only operated the airports themselves. Their revenues came entirely from airline fees. Their actions thus only affected our everyday lives when we took an airplane trip. They had a clear, narrow mandate.
Today, however, the authority controls the Dulles Toll Road and thus is collecting money from everyday commuters. They are building the Metro Silver Line, and contributing to bus service and road projects in the area. Their decisions reach far beyond the airports themselves.
For example, in 2010, the authority announced it was going to take funding away from the Fairfax Connector buses. These buses serve commuters going to Metro stations for trips into jobs in DC, and for DC residents who work in Tysons Corner and elsewhere in the corridor. Therefore, they do benefit DC residents and DC employers.
Instead, MWAA wants to spend the money on a freeway loop along Virginia route 606 stretching around the back of Dulles Airport. This will benefit almost no DC residents at all because it doesn't help people go to or from DC. Rather, it will speed up travel between Loudoun County and Prince William County, driving housing and job growth in these sprawling areas and encouraging more residents and employers to locate in parts of our region very distant from the District.
The airports authority should not be making these transportation decisions. They are not doing this in concert with COG and the TPB. They did not solicit input from residents in either Fairfax or the District. They are, instead, trying to push a specific economic development plan being pushed by a small subset of Northern Virginia business leaders and which is definitely not in the best interests of the District or even most Northern Virginia residents.
DC's several members of the MWAA board have not discussed these issues publicly with the Council or with residents of the District. They haven't held forums to hear from residents. We expect our Metro Board members to communicate with the public about key decisions from that agency and our Councilmembers communicate on important decisions they make. Our MWAA directors should do the same.
On the Silver Line, MWAA is making decisions that will have long-term effects on WMATA's ridership and costs long into the future. For example, moving the Dulles Airport station farther from the airport would save money now but could decrease ridership, meaning higher costs for area governments in the future.
Which is better? There can be debate about this, but if the debate only happens behind closed doors and with people solely concerned about the Airports Authority's narrow and immediate interests, we could all end up paying for a century or more.
When Mr. Session and Ms. Hall come before you in this hearing, I hope you will ask both of them what they will do to push for greater transparency and accountability from the MWAA Board, such as opening up meetings and using new technology.
I also hope you will ask them how they will involve residents of DC, elected Councilmembers, and regional bodies like COG and the TPB in the far-reaching, regional decisions that MWAA is making not just about the airports themselves but about how commuters travel to and from DC and around Northern Virginia.
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