Posts about Board Of Trade
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) released its long-awaited report on WMATA governance this morning. The report concludes that the board lacks clarity about where its role begins and ends, but rejects some of the drastic structural changes that have been proposed, instead arguing the board can and should fix problems itself.
An ambiguous definition of the board's role was a common theme in both the Riders' Advisory Council and Board of Trade reports. The board has been accused of micromanaging operations rather than focusing on policy and high-level issues.
The GAO report agreed, and recommends the board clarify its responsibilities as well as conduct regular self-assessments. Fortunately, the board is already doing much of that.
A governance committee, ably led by Mary Hynes of Arlington, has formulated bylaws and procedures for the board which better define its role. This year, after most members turned over and the reports came out criticizing past board actions, the board has indeed started focusing effectively on the high-level decisions that it needs to make to keep Metro running smoothly.
The GAO report says, "These draft bylaws represent a good first step toward addressing some of the concerns discussed in this report but will need to be adopted and then effectively implemented to achieve their desired effect." The report also criticizes past boards for doing a poor job of strategic planning, suggesting the board develop a better plan and then commit to implementing it.
The executives and DOTs of DC, Maryland, and Virginia were waiting to see the GAO report before moving ahead further on structural changes. The Board of Trade report last year suggested removing alternates, giving the governors one extra appointment of their own, creating an added "super-board" above the current board to supervise the board, and changing the jurisdictional veto.
The Riders' Advisory Council, on the other hand, argued that these changes were unnecessary and possibly counterproductive. Its report argued that the problems could be fixed by doing a better job appointing members and by the members developing better policies around these issues. (Disclosure: I was the principal author of the RAC report.)
The GAO took a similar stance to the RAC's report. They wrote:
Our analysis, however, indicates that most of the recommended changes have trade-offsThe GAO paid special attention to the federal government's involvement, which includes the General Services Administration appointing a set of federal members. The GAO says that GSA lacks clear procedures for selecting and appointing these members. The GSA replied that while it's true it doesn't have formal procedures, it doesn't think that's interfered with selecting qualified candidates.
— there are both benefits and drawbacks to them. We compared the various recommendations to leading governance practices, approaches taken by other transit agencies, and the views of board members and stakeholders. Board members and stakeholders indicated that proposed changes to the board's structure and processes — such as eliminating alternate board members, changing the size of the board, or eliminating the jurisdictional veto — have trade-offs, and we did not find consistent support among leading governance practices or other transit agencies that these changes would improve governance.
The [Board of Trade/COG] Governance Task Force recommended that the signatories and the appointing authorities form a WMATA Governance Commission to make improvements to the authority's governance structure and hold the board accountable for its performance. ... Such a commission was viewed by some stakeholders we spoke with as redundant because it would be comprised of most of the same membership that is responsible for appointing the board of directors.
Moving forward, this report confirms what's become increasingly clear: WMATA can be fixed without rearranging the organizational structure. Doing that could fix some problems but create others, and would ultimately be a distraction from the work of actually governing better.
Already, we've seen tremendous progress. The NTSB feels safety is improving. Communication has taken huge steps forward with WMATA now tweeting and generally using two-way communication. The board passed a budget that avoided service cuts and without any major acrimony. Local jurisdictions stepped up with needed funding.
Now, we should let the current board and management keep making the strides they have. The executives and DOTs should let this issue rest.
Governor McDonnell did succeed in using the frustration over Metro to let him take away some power from Northern Virginia, giving him a direct appointment to the board who will likely replace Mary Hynes entirely or move her to an alternate position and bump Jeff McKay. Either way, that will be a big loss for Virginian interests, since both have effectively represented their constituents. The legislature should reverse this hasty decision before the appointments are made or renewed at the end of the year.
From the WMATA governance debate to the 2030 Group's transportation report, there's been a recent push from business groups to convince elected officials to stay away from making decisions and instead leave the policymaking to "experts." That's dangerous.
If you want to get cable TV, an expert cable installer knows which pieces of equipment you need and how to set them up. But the cable guy shouldn't decide how many premium channels you want. That's your choice. The reasons to get certain channels are about what kind of TV you like and how much time you want to spend watching it, not the technical issues.
The same goes for transportation and development. Our nation decided to aggressively build a car-oriented, suburban society after World War II. We created engineering and scientific disciplines around figuring out how to do that: roads of a certain size, freeways spaced a certain distance, cookie-cutter houses and shopping centers that were easy to build quickly in any town anywhere.
If someone has been building these elements of infrastructure for 30 years, we could call them an "expert" on building that stuff. But should they alone decide what kind of towns we should build?
People are overwhelmingly saying, wait a minute, this isn't what we want. Housing prices in walkable areas like Logan Circle, Ballston, or Silver Spring are high and still rising because a lot of people want to live there but there isn't enough supply. We have lots of single-family, detached, suburban homes but not enough apartments and townhouses a short walk from shops, parks, and transit.
People are sending clear signals through their housing choices that they want walkable urbanism. Yet most (but not all) professionals working in the field are locked in to the ways they've been trained and the way they do things. That's where we get the crazy traffic engineer adherence to "standards" even when they make little sense, as this Strong Towns video so effectively parodied.
There's an important role for experts in identifying specific steps to implement a policy. Parochial political concerns become dangerous when making small-scale choices that can enrich indviduals, where the danger of corruption becomes strong. But when it comes to deciding the big picture, overarching directions, we need officials who listen to residents, not just make decisions based on how they've always done things.
The Washingtonian analogues of those experts are the ones Bob Chase and Rich Parsons consulted on their study that aimed to tell leaders what the regional transportation priorities should be (and coincidentally mirrored those priorities they were already pushing for). I spoke with Chase and Parsons last week, and they were adamant that they were just trying to find out the views of experts, devoid of politics.
They said they wanted "a pretty balanced, professional objective study about what works and what's not working well," to "take the local jurisdiction and state perspective out of it." In selecting their anonymous experts, they said they were "looking for people who take the politics out of it, and "intentionally selected people very senior, with 20 years of experience."
That doesn't change the fact that the questions guided people toward megaprojects, and that there's plenty of evidence the list had an exurban bias. Besides having a small number of people from DC, Chase and Parsons refused to tell me which counties the "experts" lived in.
But even had their sample been broader, there's a problem with saying that senior engineers should set transportation priorities. I'd definitely prefer an engineer with 20 years of experience to design a new road or transit line over someone who lacks a professional degree. I'd also prefer to have them tell me how much it will cost and what hydrological problems might arise.
I'd even welcome their input on where to put a line, but we shouldn't be setting priorities just on that basis. A transportation engineer is not responsible for thinking about the merits of different growth patterns, or their effect on people's health and happiness, or on the environmental costs.
Remember, Jane Jacobs got regular people to step up to stop the Lower Manhattan Expressway when the "experts" were saying it was necessary. All of the conventional wisdom in the urban planning field at the time held that the road was the only way to make New York work in the modern age.
Should decisionmakers disregard input from the 23-year-old college grad who has a job at PriceWaterhouseCoopers but doesn't want to live in Fairfax County because there aren't walkable places with an urban vibe? What about the 75-year-old in Aspen Hill who's finding it harder to drive, hates that she has to travel 30 minutes to the Pike just to get to most kinds of retail, and wishes she could live in Bethesda but prohibited by expensive housing?
The Board of Trade has been pushing WMATA and local jurisdictions to excise elected officials from any decisionmaking authority on the WMATA Board. Sure, it's the experts and not the elected officials who should decide which contractor is best suited to replacing the broken track circuits. But I want officials who listen to riders to decide whether to cut weekend service. By a strictly performance-based metric, that service is relatively poor at cost recovery, but its benefits to the region go far beyond WMATA itself.
Now, with their survey of anonymous "experts," Chase and Parsons are going to be pressuring groups like the Transportation Planning Board to abdicate their traditional role in setting priorities and instead choose the megaprojects their "experts" picked, which happen to be the same ones they were already pushing for.
They'll say, as they told me, that local officials are too preoccupied with the immediate interests of their local jurisdiction to think "regionally." Instead, decisions about how to spend billions in transportation dollars over decades should go to the professionals, who won't think about the big picture of regional growth but rather just move as many cars or trains as fast as possible as far as possible.
The TPB and other officials should reject this idea. The input of professionals is useful, but far more so when those professionals can attach their names to their recommendations and everyone can weigh them knowing the biases and interests each person brings with them. The input of other people is important too, and our elected representatives, even if imperfect, are the ones best situated to make those choices.
Last week, the Board of Trade/COG WMATA Governance Task Force held a public meeting to hear ideas from stakeholders about improving WMATA's governance.
Sadly, the Board of Trade and COG continued their trend of keeping the task force quite distant from those who actually work hard to improve WMATA. The meeting was structured like a typical public hearing where public officials are required to endure public comment, and scheduled at 9:00 am, which excluded many people with day jobs.
Time limits were kept lower than most DC Council hearings I've attended, and the Board of Trade's Jim Dyke brusquely cut off anyone who had more to say. Members asked no questions of the presenters, either nodding along or nodding off to sleep as Dyke looked irritated at having to take the time.
I'd spent considerable effort on preparing ideas for the group, only some of which I was able to present. Below are my comments.
One of the most famous of Winston Churchill's many famous quotes is about democracy. "Democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time," he said, and has been quoted so often that it is almost a cliché.
But this common quotation doesn't merely mean that all government is bad, and democracy is the least bad. Democracy's warts are also more visible than those of other forms of government, which is why they have been tried from time to time even after the advent of democracy.
Democracy has lots of problems. It's messy. People argue and can't seem to work together. Big decisions take time. Quarrels are out in the open for others to criticize. Yet for all its faults, anything else has more.
Members of the task force, there are some forces in our region that seek to make the WMATA Board less messy and chaotic. Wouldn't it be great if all this partisan squabbling stopped and a few people simply made the decisions? That's what every dictator has said.
Yes, the WMATA Board often argues for weeks about major issues. Some of its members at various times are very obstinate about getting their way. They fight publicly.
However, this fractiousness at the WMATA Board is not the problem with Metro. I see countless rider complaints, on blogs, email, Twitter and more. Virtually none of the complaints with Metro involve the Board. They involve the service. Most riders don't care how much the Board fights. Only the Washington Post editorial board seems to have a big problem with that.
But riders do care if the Board listens. When riders do have problems, the elected officials on the Board are far more responsive to their concerns than the unelected members. If service is the disease, the democratic aspects of the Board are a salve if not a complete cure.
I don't know whether any of you approach this task force with the preconceived goal of reducing the representation of elected officials on the WMATA Board. If so, please abandon that notion. The idea would be dead on arrival with riders.
But I will assume you have no preconceived notions. Still, some of you come from the business world, where I worked for most of my own career. And you may be thinking about how to apply some of the lessons of corporate governance to WMATA. That is a worthy objective. But please do not entertain the idea that the closed and unaccountable nature of corporate boards is one such advantage.
As any libertarian is fond of pointing out, we can all choose not to patronize any particular corporation. Since rail and local bus transit does not lend itself to competition, we don't have that luxury. Therefore, a democratic process, messy as it may be, is the only appropriate approach.
One way to meaningfully improve the WMATA Board would be to add more elected officials and even directly elected individual representatives to the Board. According to TCRP Report 85, most transit agencies have elected officials, and a number include directly elected representatives to great success. WMATA's biggest problem today is a lack of rider confidence. How better to restore that confidence than to give riders some direct stake in the policymaking process?
There are several additional ways to improve the Board's composition. For one, Board members must be regular riders of some part of the Metro system. Otherwise, it is far too easy for a Board member to put other policy considerations above the best interests of the riders. Board members often say that they know the issues well as they hear from riders directly, but there is no substitute for experiencing them directly.
Second, Board members must be willing to make the commitment to participate actively, even the alternate members. When vigorous debate is taking place, if some representatives are not present, they aren't able to bring their jurisdiction's needs into the mix. Even the alternate members have significant influence both because they can participate in discussion and because they can vote in committees. When any jurisdiction's alternate members shirk this responsibility, the entire Board suffers.
The Board chairman currently has too much control over information. Staff generally send presentations only to the Chair, who can and often does delete information or ask for changes. This is inappropriate, especially with the chairmanship rotating on a regular basis. All members should receive information early and should get it unfiltered by whomever happens to control the chairmanship.
TCRP report 85 specifically lists "timely receipt of information" as a key influence on transit board effectiveness. With information bottlenecking through the Chair, receipt of information is far from timely today. On several occasions I have found out about an upcoming agenda item and asked a Board member, only to be told that he or she hadn't yet received the memo in questions which I had before my eyes.
Relatedly, the Board must provide for more ways to collect information from riders before making decisions. I don't want to slow down their decisionmaking, which doesn't need to be slower than it is. However, many significant policy issues often come before the Board that they haven't had the opportunity to learn about in much detail. Members of the public often see the presentations mere days before, and sometimes do not at all. There is then no public comment period before the issue comes before a committee.
As a result, Board members lack the opportunity to hear important details from knowledgeable riders. The unelected members don't even have an official way for riders to reach them. The Riders' Advisory Council typically lacks the lead time on these issues to be able to advise the Board. The Board should have a more robust process for getting feedback before they make decisions on fairly intricate policy or technical matters. That could involve a public comment period before committee meetings, a better electronic process, or other solutions.
The WMATA Board could be much better. It could also be much worse. It should not be less democratic, no matter the appeal of a more efficient and less argumentative process. I hope your report will identify ways to fix some of the flaws in the process to make the Board both more effective and more democratic at the same time. Thank you.
You might never know it, but influential business leaders and former elected officials are meeting behind closed doors to determine the future of WMATA's board and whether you have board members who listen to your concerns.
The Greater Washington Board of Trade is a lobbying group made up of business leaders from the Washington region. It pushes for policies that benefit businesses, which is a totally reasonable thing to do, and has some very intelligent and thoughtful members. But, of course, it is an interest group.
The Board of Trade decided to create a "task force" to look at restructuring the WMATA board. It asked the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG), an association of local governments across the region, to participate.
And here's where it gets weird. Without telling anyone ahead of time or soliciting input, COG, chaired by DC Council member Kwame Brown (a candidate for DC Council chair), went ahead and signed on to the Board of Trade's task force. That puts an official imprimatur on a project that's still dominated by one particular group, businesses.
Other advocacy groups, such as the Coalition for Smarter Growth, the Sierra Club and Action Committee for Transit, said, wait a minute. If this is an officially sponsored project by local governments, shouldn't other opinions, such as those of riders and rider advocates, be represented? On Wednesday, the COG board rejected this suggestion, and many elected officials showed a disappointing contempt for including the public in such an important decision as how to structure our region's transit agency.
COG officials argued that they shouldn't include any "advocates," because if they include some, they have to include them all. But that mysteriously ignores one very important point: the Board of Trade, which appointed almost half the members, is itself an advocacy group. Its Web site even says so. Instead, Brown decided to appoint himself and two other current elected officials, Penelope Gross of Fairfax and Andrea Harrison of Prince George's, to the task force.
COG staff had said that COG's participation was important because it would open up the process and make it more accessible to the public. But when interested observers showed up at Friday's first meeting at the Board of Trade headquarters, they were told it was private. The Board of Trade wants an official stamp on its activities, but it doesn't want anyone to know what it's up to.
They plan to hold a hearing to get some public input, and say they will accept public comment on the draft report, but this is merely token participation. The task force will decide its recommendations based on the agendas and interests of the members, and the deliberations themselves are happening in secret thus far. COG's participation could give the report a more official sheen for decisionmakers and in the press than a report just issued by the Board of Trade, but it won't be truly representative of the range of views and the business agenda will still dominate.
There's some reason to believe the Board of Trade already has a specific end-goal in mind: removing elected officials from the WMATA board and replacing them with unaccountable members appointed by area chief executives, as . That would be a terrible idea. The members who most listen to riders and rider concerns are typically the elected officials on the board, like those from Arlington, Alexandria, Fairfax County and the District. Meanwhile, the Maryland members, appointed directly by the governor, are some of the least accessible.
Our region's transit system is too important to too many people to be run by a group of unaccountable insiders. And debates about how to structure the agency are critical to riders and the public.
Kwame Brown wants to portray himself as a man of the people. His Web site is even titled "The We District." Is this for real or is it just show? As voters get ready to make up their minds, they'll be looking to see whether Brown truly wants the District to be one where "we" participate in deciding our futures together, or just one where where he and some influential campaign contributors make all the decisions behind closed doors and "we" simply obey.
Cross-posted at the Washington Post's All Opinions are Local.
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