Posts about Mort Downey
If you listened to the WMATA Board discuss station names this morning, you could be forgiven if you concluded the board is made up of representatives from local universities, hospitals, and sports teams, and that those institutions, rather than riders and residents, pay for Metro.
That's because where institutions want to be on Metro station names, most members from those jurisdictions argued for adding them on, even when such an addition would violate the policy the board just adopted a few months ago. Many also argued for adding more content to the primary names, rather than subtitles.
The phrase "what's best for riders," sadly, came out of the mouths of very few members. Most notably, federal members Mort Downey and Marcel Acosta, and Fairfax member Jeff McKay (who is most in danger of losing his seat when Bob McDonnell's appointee Jim Dyke joins the board), were the ones who did emphasize what's best for riders.
What riders want is shorter names. Assistant General Manager for Communications Barbara Richardson said, "Our customers want one name. They want one, common name. They want these to be short."
Few people refer to "West Falls Church Vee Tea You Vee Eh" or "Van Ness You Dee See." Instead, they say they're going to West Falls Church or Van Ness. With a few exceptions like "Franconia-Springfield" and "Stadium-Armory," which really are truly compound names, other station names have a main portion, like "U Street" or "Grosvenor," and then sometimes additional points of interest.
Metro staff got that from their focus groups, and our surveys backed it up. People told Metro that long station names was their biggest complaint about the map. It's annoying and confusing for riders.
Richardson presented the staff recommendations after playing an amusing song, "The Metro Song." It parodies Johnny Cash's "I've been everywhere" to name 46 of the stations in the Metro system:
The staff suggest:
- Navy Yard Ballpark
- New York Ave Florida Ave-Gallaudet U
- Smithsonian (no National Mall)
- Waterfront (no Arena Stage)
- Forest Glen (no Holy Cross Hospital, but with an H logo denoting a hospital)
- King Street Old Town
Montgomery County alternate member Kathy Porter defended the county's request to add Holy Cross Hospital, or at least "Holy Cross" along with an H symbol, to Forest Glen.
Porter lamented that the county hadn't pushed for the change earlier, since it would have qualified under the previous policy, and suggested the board let Montgomery "grandfather" in the name. However, Fairfax's Jeff McKay pointed out that the reason they're changing the policy is because there have been problems with overly long station names in the past.
Porter noted that the hospital runs a shuttle to the station and there is Ride On service to the station. But in WMATA's focus groups, many members expressed a feeling that anything attached to a station name ought to be within a short walk, not a bus or car ride away.
DC Councilmember Muriel Bowser also wanted to grandfather a non-subtitle, Georgia Ave-Petworth. On this one, there's some good argument either way. I've heard many people call this "Georgia Ave Petworth" or "Georgia Petworth." Several commenters recommended actually making it Petworth, since Georgia Avenue is very long and Forest Glen, Wheaton, and Glenmont are also on Georgia Avenue.
Or, perhaps it could follow the pattern WMATA recommends for Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and make the station Georgia Ave Petworth?
Bowser also took the position held by Gallaudet management and students for keeping that university in the primary name instead of a subtitle, endorsing NoMa-Gallaudet U New York Avenue. She pointed out that no other DC university is slated to become part of a subtitle. We've advocated instead for actually putting all universities and other points of interest in subtitles, and 83% of you agreed.
There seemed to be some interest on the board for this option. Mary Hynes of Arlington noted that they have many universities around their Metro stations, and that perhaps it's not feasible to expect to put all universities in primary names or even station names in general. McKay recommended holding off on any change concerning Gallaudet until this broader question is resolved.
Artis Hampshire-Cowen, though, seemed to be wearing her hat as an executive for Howard University rather than necessarily representing riders of Prince George's County. She argued against moving universities into subtitles, using Howard as a specific example.
Bowser also asked for the ballpark to be part of a main station name, Navy Yard-Ballpark, instead of the staff-recommended Navy Yard Ballpark.
The curly W seems completely dead, though that may be a very recent change. Last week, I'd heard that the Nationals only wanted to pay if the station could be named Navy Yard-, not just for "Ballpark." Today, however, DDOT told WMATA that DC would pay for any change, and Bowser told the board that DC expects the Nationals would cover those costs.
Under WMATA's policy, the jurisdiction has to pay for the station name itself. Another entity can reimburse the jurisdiction, but it has to guarantee the funding to WMATA. WMATA won't enter into a side agreement with a separate organization to collect the funds directly.
McKay asked what would happen if the ballpark gets a corporate name at some point. Would they want to, and would Metro feel any pressure to, rename the station? Members agreed that the staff should further flesh out the no corporate naming policy.
Alexandria mayor Bill Euille pushed for King Street-Old Town, their original request, instead of King Street Old Town, the staff recommendation (and one you overwhelmingly supported).
Marcel Acosta stood up for holding to the policy that the board had just adopted. He noted that the shorter names make things easier for customers, and "we need to temper" the impulse to accommodate local organization requests.
Alvin Nichols, alternate for Prince George's, asked about a request by Mount Rainier to add their name to West Hyattsville. However, Maryland has not officially requested this change, so it's not on the table at this time.
The board adjourned their discussion until next Thursday, November 3, where they will hold a public comment session followed immediately by a full board meeting to vote on changes. It's clear that some members are not paying much heed to rider concerns, or at least the comments of those who participated in the focus groups or filled out our survey (while others very much are).
Maybe if riders come to the public comment session, it will help those members start thinking about the interests of the riders instead of the interests of their universities, hospitals and sports teams.
WMATA CEO Richard Sarles and Chief Michael Taborn retain the authority to keep randomly checking riders' bags, after only Tommy Wells and Kathy Porter stood up clearly opposed to the program during a Board discussion today.
Others either cited a belief that the bag searches were just, or an unwillingness to stop even an unjust program against the bugaboo of security.
Tom Downs, new DC member, long-time transit professional, and chair of the Customer Service and Operations Committee, introduced the discussion by announcing that the Board felt it "knew what it was doing" when it delegated authority to the General Manager and police chief to make decisions about security measures including bag searches.
He added that the Board didn't seem interested in challenging the General Manager's judgment and authority in this matter.
Instead, he hoped the discussion would center around how to communicate this decision to customers. "Without a dedicated commitment to listening to our customers about heartfelt issues about privacy and other rights and about security," he said, the Board risks having the kind of reaction that the TSA encountered to its pat-downs.
Fairfax's Cathy Hudgins, the current Board chair, added that the Board should explore whether better communication could "alleviate concerns and stress" for riders over this program.
That wasn't compelling to Kathy Porter, new alternate from Montgomery County. She pointed out that there's not much the Board could do with any feedback it might receive, if it's not interested in taking any action based on that feedback.
"I respect the GM and the chief," she said, and acknowledged the law enforcement imperative to protect the safety and security of the system. However, she said, "Our relationship with our riders has a significant impact on the safety and security of the system," and that surely is the purview of the Board.
Fairfax's Jeff McKay, a staunch supporter of the bag searches, wondered why the Board was discussing the issue in this context. If they want to discuss the program, discuss the program, he said; but is there really value in discussing how much communication is needed for security measures?
McKay added that he'd hate to see any rules that the GM and chief had to give a certain amount of notice to the public if future credible threats arise and they have to institute other security measures.
McKay has a point. The Board was trying to avoid having to confront the bag searches directly through this exercise in talking instead about communication. The conversation became much better once they got their views out in the open. Some wholeheartedly like the program, some clearly don't, and others remained reluctant to take a stand.
DC Councilmember Tommy Wells argued that questions about the program "are highly appropriate" given the level of scrutiny the Board puts into spending priorities in other areas, like railcar replacement. He said that there is a tradeoff between any security measure's effectiveness and other factors, and that's what the Board should consider; he comes out against the program on those grounds.
Federal member Mort Downey feels differently. "This is a national security issue," said Downey, and "outweighs every other issue in civil society." Downey said he is afraid of having to go before a Congressional committee to justify why Metro didn't take these precautions.
It's clear Downey simply thinks the program is fine, but the argument about Congressional committees is the least convincing argument of all. We don't want Board members who make decisions based on what Senators might say in the event of various outcomes. That's a recipe for policy decisions based more on fear than on good policy.
Downey actually seemed to want stronger measures, saying that the current searches were just the edge of what needs to be done. He lamented the way airport security measures were "pushed back" by airlines before the 9/11 attacks.
Maryland's Peter Benjamin began his own remarks by saying that he's a long-term member of the ACLU, and a strong believer in civil rights. "I feel that bag checks are a violation of those rights, and the beginning of a process that moves towards us having fewer and fewer and fewer of those rights," he said.
If the decision was up to him, he'd take the risk of someone possibly getting in, blowing something up, and him being a victim of an attack. He feels that this program's effectiveness does not outweigh the cost.
As listeners could guess from hearing a statement starting with "I'm a long-term member of the ACLU," there was a "but." Benjamin continued that he's also sworn to uphold the safety and security of the system and the riders. He isn't comfortable making the decision for other riders, and while he heard the overwhelming rider input at the RAC meeting and the RAC's resolution, he doesn't know if that reflects all riders and isn't willing to overturn the expert opinion of the GM and police chief.
Just last week, Benjamin himself swore in several new Board members, and so we know that in that oath also includes a promise to uphold the Constitution. Did he forget about this piece?
Richard Sarles noted that given time and "being relaxed," he'd prefer to solicit more customer feedback, and he did have concerns about civil liberties, but "wanted to be ahead of the game instead of behind," especially going into the holiday season. Sarles defended his right to make decisions when necessary, saying if he had to take action for the safety of riders, "By God, I'm going to make that decision."
Sarles should have that right. McKay is right that the Board shouldn't require some long consultation process. However, it's also right for the Board to review whether the GM has gone too far. Most apparently don't.
But what about that slippery slope Benjamin is worried about (but not too worried)? Wells asked Chief Taborn, why not implement full body scans, or 100% ID checks to enter Metro? Porter later asked, if the GM did decide to start such programs, would the Board want to know?
There wasn't a good answer to that. Instead, Downs concluded with a suggstion to "establish some values" around customer communication. He made a good point that it might be healthy for the police to be doing more talking with concerned riders; at the RAC meeting, Capt. Kevin Gaddis seemed shocked at a suggestion he might benefit from talking with the ACLU and other groups from time to time. A little dialogue could go a long way if the police can come to see riders as something other than potential enemies.
The dangling question is how far the Board would let the GM and police chief go. To listen to Downey and McKay, who brought up many of the usual tropes about how things were different on 9/12/2001 versus 9/10/2001 and how we live in a different world, anything the GM does in the name of safety is acceptable.
It sounded suspiciously similar to the arguments for torture and Guantanamo. If only the Obama administration might reconsider its choice of federal representatives to find one that shares its values beyond simply having long expertise in transit.
Meanwhile, at least there's hope that the pushback on this program might dissuade Sarles and Taborn from performing very many bag searches or venturing into even more invasive security measures. And if that happens, a few more Board members just might find some fortitude and stand with Porter and Wells.
WMATA Board members, including federal representatives and new members from DC and Arlington, expressed a willingness to explore cutting back late-night weekend transit service at their meeting today. The tenor of the debate differed greatly from that of previous years, when Board members pushed hard against even the suggestion of such cuts.
This move would save substantial money, but also would impair people's ability to go out in DC, Arlington, and other walkable communities without a car with confidence they can get home affordably.
Such a move risks shifting the DC region away from the "transit culture" that has been developed. On the other hand, if jurisdictions can't contribute more money and WMATA can't find other savings, other cuts could similarly cripple transit and take away vital access for riders.
Maryland's Peter Benjamin asked about providing bus, taxi, or other service as an alternative to rail service, to avoid completely cutting off riders from having transit options. Such a program could blunt the pain of such a cut.
Rail operations head Dave Kubicek said the late-night Friday and Saturday service forces WMATA to pay the equivalent "adding an eighth day of work" each week. Cutting back the hours to midnight from 3 am would effectively give them 45 more days per year to perform track work.
The Board also discussed plans to hold hearings and give the public a chance to weigh in on these issues.
New Board member Mary Hynes from Arlington suggested presenting the idea of earlier closings juxtaposed with whatever can be accomplished in the extra time. "Our goal is Metro 2.0," said Hynes. She argued that if riders knew what could be fixed and how much faster, it could help them decide whether to support late-night cuts.
Unfortunately, this also risks pitting rush-hour only riders, more often those who drive to stations and don't live in walkable areas with ready transit access, against people for whom transit is a 24-7 mobility tool. Federal member Mort Downey already started down that road by talking about how Metro is a "demand-driven" service, organized primarily around the times of peak usage, which also happens to be what matters most to the federal government.
Tom Downs, DC's voting member from the Gray administration, also expressed an interest in exploring this, though he also made very clear that rider input is vital. As Kytja Weir noted on Twitter, cutting late-night service is something Jim Graham constantly fought, often tenaciously and to the irritation of some of his colleagues or the Board of Trade.
We're seeing the effect in this meeting of the new Board. Gone are two of the more vociferous defenders of transit service, and the new members either won't be fighting as hard or haven't yet found their footing to do so. While the Board hasn't necessarily decided to make these cuts and members haven't committed to supporting or opposing them, in the old Board, we'd have heard members making impassioned speeches against this idea the moment it came up.
Or, perhaps members will just be more subtle about it. Another item on the list of potential cuts is Yellow Line service to Fort Totten off-peak, which keeps riders between Mount Vernon Square and Fort Totten from facing very long midday and evening headways. Tommy Wells asked staff to also add Red Line turnbacks at Grosvenor to the list, which represent a potential Montgomery County-only cut to parallel this DC-only cut.
About half of Red Line trains stop at Grosvenor rush hours instead of continuing to Shady Grove. Years past, this happened off-peak as well, but Maryland secured service sending all off-peak trains to Shady Grove and only turning any back during the peak.
If one is on the table, it's fair to put the other on as well, and perhaps a comparable service pattern in Virginia. All would be terrible, however, and the Board needs to look hard at alternatives before jumping to this option.
Update: Tommy Wells criticized this option when talking to reporters after the meeting.
Following the June 2009 Red Line crash that killed 9 people, the NTSB made several recommendations to Metro based on the causes of the crash. While these recommendations are obviously important, Metro has an obligation to riders, and to the families of the victims, to ask what safety trade-offs would be made by implementing them.
What safety trade-offs could NTSB recommendations possibly have? There are several potential causes of fatality and injury in the Metro system, and saying 'Yes' to the NTSB recommendations means saying 'No' to addressing other safety risks.
Based on the most recent WMATA Safety and Security Committee meeting, however, the WMATA Board appears poised to hand out blank checks for implementing any NTSB recommendations, without even inquiring into trade-offs. If that happens, the result for riders will be more budget shortfalls, leading to bigger fare increases, and unnecessary safety risks.
Here's what has happened so far. Metro announced in July that it has set aside $30 million over three years to implement any NTSB and FTA recommendations following the June 2009 red line crash that killed 9 people.
However, when Senator Mikulski (D-MD) asked in August for cost estimates of each recommendation, the total provided by Board chair Peter Benjamin was $100 million. And that's just for recommendations for which Metro has cost estimates.
When Chief Safety Officer Jim Dougherty met with the Metro Board on Sept 16, not a single question was asked about the skyrocketing costs and trade-offs of implementing federal recommendations.
Actually, not a single question was asked about the details or trade-offs of any of the recommendations, from the $55 million replacement of Gen 2 track circuit modules to the $25 million safety analysis of the automated train control system.
The oversight meeting with Dougherty lasted for only 45 minutes, and consisted primarily of a self-congratulatory presentation on the progress made by WMATA, which included the new logo seen here.
To exercise safety oversight, the Metro Board must ask about safety trade-offs in every meeting: Why are the current safety actions, whether they originate from the NTSB or not, the highest safety priorities?
The FTA asked this question during their audit and was told that no prioritized list of safety actions exists. The answer to the Board should look something like the table below. In fact, this should just be added to the monthly Vital Signs report.
This table is a Hazard Tracking Log (HTL). It's based on a similar table from a booklet called Hazard Analysis Guidelines for Transit Projects, published 10 years ago by the FTA. Lots of safety actions are prioritized based on the severity and likelihood of the identified hazard causing injury or fatality. Hazards and their corresponding safety actions are generated by 2 types of hazard analysis, reactive and proactive, which I describe elsewhere.
The non-NTSB recommendations in the table are empty because the Metro Safety Office has yet to conduct proactive hazard analysis for any critical system, as I've discussed elsewhere, and integrate the resulting safety actions into a prioritized list.
Most of the FTA's recommendations are focused on putting a Hazard Management System in place (basically, doing what the aforementioned booklet says to do) that consists of hazard analyses that continuously update the prioritized Hazard Tracking Log table. Metro's responses to FTA and NTSB recommendations, however, raise two serious concerns about its ability to put this System in place.
Metro is outsourcing hazard analysis of the Automatic Train Control system.
This $25 million, 3-year project, which is in response to an NTSB recommendation, was announced by Benjamin in his August letter to the Congressional delegation. That's a lot of money. $25 million would employ 75-100 engineers and analysts full-time for 3 years. One wonders what the WMATA safety office does if we are paying $25 million to contractors to do hazard analysis.
And what happens when the analysis ends, and we upgrade the automated train control system? Do we pay several million dollars again to a contractor to conduct another safety analysis? It seems like a good idea for the contractor to train and transition the safety analysis to WMATA's own safety office.
However, when asked if this would happen, a WMATA spokesperson responded, "The task will not specifically train Metro employees in how to conduct safety analysis, but will identify proper response and prioritization to safety concerns, particularly in an integrated environment."
Metro touts Hazard Management success without actually doing hazard analysis.
In Metro's August reply to the FTA audit, Metro merely copied the FTA recommendations (e.g. identify skills required for hazard analysis; train employees in these skills; etc) and pasted them into the HTL table shown above as a demonstration of progress.
Metro then announced triumphantly, "By evaluating the FTA recommendations in this manner, WMATA demonstrates that it has established a true hazard management program that incorporates a risk-based approach to evaluate and mitigate hazards".
This misplaced concern for the presentation of the results of hazard analysis, over the actual analysis itself, is even aired by WMATA's own IT department in the very same letter to the FTA. After discussing changes to the IT architecture being made to support hazard analysis, the following concern is said to be a "threat" to the entire project:
The System Safety and Environmental Management Department is awed by product suite success stories, dynamite product demonstrations and industry colleagues' evaluation of technology.The FTA should not accept the responses of WMATA to its recommendations until WMATA has demonstrated its ability to actually do a hazard analysis of a complex system, which would enable it to then prioritize hazards in a system. It doesn't really matter which system it is
Metro can do this. It's my hope that, when the FTA begins regulating transit agencies, they will hold up Metro as an example for the rest of the country of world-class safety management.
But Metro can't do this and hand out blank checks for responding to NTSB recommendations regardless of the safety trade-offs. They are simply incompatible approaches to safety. The latter, reactive approach leads to budget shortfalls requiring fare increases, and to injuries and fatalities. The former, systematic approach leads to improved safety at the most efficient and rapid pace possible.
But Metro can only do this with leadership in oversight, particularly from Board chair Benjamin and Safety & Security Committee chair Mort Downey.
Kenneth Hawkins, brother of one of the killed passengers from the Red Line crash, asked following the NTSB hearing, "Who's going to hold WMATA accountable?" I still have the same question.
WMATA has around $226 million in capital dollars sitting in the bank at any given time, since their capital spending lags behind the actual money coming in from governments. At last week's Finance Committee meeting, Board members debated whether to use this money for operating costs or try to speed up capital projects.
Prior to the Metro Matters capital funding agreement that began in FY06, WMATA had a particularly poor track record of actually spending the capital dollars they had. This was partially because capital funds came from annual appropriations by the jurisdictions, which WMATA couldn't count on ahead of time. Therefore, they couldn't obligate (sign contracts) to spend that money until they'd saved up enough funding for the whole project, which often takes place over many years.
When the jurisdictions ratified Metro Matters, it meant that five years of financing was available and funds could be obligated based on these financial commitments. As a result, the percentage of funds obligated increased from an average of about 39% of funds available at any given time to about 82% under Metro Matters. Actual expenditures (payments for contract installments or work performed over a number of years) increased from about 31% of funds available to about 72% under Metro Matters.
This still, however, leaves a fairly large balance in the capital fund at any given time. For example, at the end of FY 09, WMATA had $226 million in unexpended capital funds. Of these, about $146 million had been obligated and about $80 million was unobligated and unexpended.
This doesn't mean that the $80 million had no purpose. There are projects designated to get that money. But it does mean that the money isn't being put to work at the moment, except for interest payments that WMATA receives. And by the time WMATA spends that money, it will have gotten more from jurisdictions.
It's not mismanagement. If you're doing an IT upgrade and find that the project that you had been planning for has been eclipsed by technology, you have to put it off, re-write the specs and re-advertise the contract (unobligated and unexpended). On the contract compliance end, if you find a railcar doesn't meet specifications, you're not going to make final payment (obligated but unexpended) until it does.
You can also do no more than you have resources for. You can't take all the the contract compliance personnel away and put everybody to work on the front end letting contracts.
At last week's meeting, federal member Mort Downey suggested that WMATA might obligate its funds by a percentage greater than 100% in order to maximize the use of capital dollars and accelerate capital spending since actual expenditures trail obligations by a significant margin.
On the other hand, DC member Jim Graham suggested that jurisdictions could redirect this balance to operating funds by contributing a little less to capital and spending the savings on operating contributions instead. Doing that wouldn't stop any capital projects.
The points of view of both board members have validity. If WMATA is able to accelerate its obligations (contracts) for capital projects, more will get done sooner and at a lower cost. If WMATA adopts a more realistic obligation/expenditure timetable, then jurisdictional capital contributions could be reduced (freeing up some money for operating) without delaying capital projects. In view of WMATA's dire capital needs and stressed operating budget, perhaps there's a middle ground that satisfies both points of view.
Craig Simpson is the Legislative and Political Representative for ATU Local 689. Opinions posted here are his own and not the offcial position of ATU Local 689.
Welcome to our live chat with Mort Downey, federal member of the WMATA Board of Directors.
|Greater Greater Washington live chat: Mort Downey||(03/17/2010)|
Recently, we held a live chat with Marcel Acosta, one of the two new federal members of the WMATA Board. Tomorrow, we'll chat with the other, Mort Downey, the principal (voting) federal member.
Mr. Downey was U.S. Deputy Secretary of Transportation under President Clinton, Executive Director and CFO of the New York MTA, and is now a transportation consultant.
As a federal representative and someone who doesn't work for a public agency or elected official, we're hopeful he has the freedom to speak his mind on WMATA.
The Obama administration has named two of the federal representatives to the WMATA Board of Directors, the Washington Post reports.
Mortimer Downey will be a voting member. He served as Deputy Secretary of Transportation for the Clinton Administration, headed the Obama transition's transportation agency review team, and is now a transportation consultant.
According to the Post, Downey rides the system regularly from his home in Vienna. Acosta lives in DC and does not own a car. The law requires at least one of the four to be a regular rider, and many have suggested that all four ought to be regular riders (as should jurisdictional members as well).
They have not completed their selection for the other two members, one voting and one alternate. The Post article says that the administration accelerated these two appointments to the new members could participate in the important budget decisions at the Board meeting on Thursday. Hopefully Downey and Acosta will be attending Wednesday's public hearing to start hearing rider opinions on these issues.
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