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What would you ask WMATA's new CEO?

WMATA will be hosting a blogger roundtable this evening with now-permanent General Manager and CEO Richard Sarles, just before he attends the Riders' Advisory Council meeting.

The last blogger roundtable. Photo by erin m on Flickr.

Ken Archer and I will be attending for GGW. We intend to ask Sarles about safety and security issues, including the bag search program, as well as his vision for the medium- and long-term future of Metro. What else do you think we should ask?

Leave your questions in the comments.

Afterward, Sarles will speak at the public Riders' Advisory Council meeting, which starts at 6:30 pm in the lobby level committee room at WMATA HQ.



Sound off on WMATA bag searches tonight

Tonight, the WMATA Riders' Advisory Council is holding a public meeting to discuss the controversial bag search program launched without public discussion in December.

Image from WTOPradio on YouTube.

I'll be chairing the meeting, which starts at 6:30 pm sharp at WMATA HQ, 600 5th Street, NW in the committee room (past security, left and then right.) The meeting will start with public comment, followed by a Q&A with Capt. Kevin Gaddis of MTPD, and then debate over passing a resolution.

People normally can speak for 2 minutes in public comment. However, there are likely to be a lot of people and we want to have lots of time to ask questions to Capt. Gaddis as well. Therefore, borrowing from Arlington's procedures, everyone who is willing to speak for only 1 minute will get to speak before those who want the full 2.

We will also have index cards for people to write potential questions, and will pose many of them to Capt. Gaddis.

I'd like to know what this is costing and whether there are other ways to spend the money. It's been reported that these are TSA personnel, not MTPD. It was also reported that this money is coming from federal grants. But if MTPD wanted the TSA to instead be patrolling the platforms with dogs to sniff for bombs, or with behavioral profiling experts to look for people that might be about to attack the system, could they use the money for this instead?

And what's the effectiveness? Have such programs in other cities actually deterred any attacks? Did Metro have any data on the value of this kind of program versus others?

Civil liberties advocates have also asked whether these searches are looking for other items that aren't related to the actual safety of Metro. The ACLU points out that searches for "general crime control" are not permitted (and even the constitutionality of this program is doubtful).

DC will soon start to have legal medical marijuana, but that remains illegal under federal law as well as in Maryland and Virginia. What will MTPD do if a rider boarding a station in the District has marijuana? Whose laws are they obligated to enforce?

What else would you like to know? What do you think the RAC's resolution should say?


WMATA bag searches make transit less safe, not more

This morning, the Metro Transit Police began conducting the system's first random bag checks. These inspections are couched in the language of security, but they actually make the system less safe.

Photo by on Flickr.

Passengers boarding during the morning rush at Braddock Road and College Park faced these screenings. The Washington Post's Dr. Gridlock reported that one man's check took 8 minutes, and yet nothing threatening was found.

People have been objecting to these random bag checks on a variety of grounds. The ACLU says that they infringe on civil liberties. Dr. Gridlock disputed the argument that they are a "necessary evil," writing that "To be a necessary evil, a thing must be both necessary and evil," and that this policy is only the latter, not the former. Even Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton thinks they're ineffective.

The WMATA Riders Advisory Council will be holding a meeting on this policy on January 3rd, 6:30 pm at WMATA HQ, where you can voice your opinions.

Regardless of how you feel about personal liberties or the Fourth Amendment, there are several reasons you should oppose these screenings. Any one of these should be enough to give you pause.

The bag checks do nothing to secure the Metro system. If this morning is any indication of Metro's plans for screenings, they'll take place only at a few stations at any given time, probably less than 5 of Metro's 86 stations. They may even be restricted to rush hours. This morning's checks appear to have ended by 8:45, according to news reports.

Most importantly, anyone can refuse the checks and still be allowed to board a train or bus. If you don't want to be screened for whatever reason, all you have to do is tell the officer that you don't want to be screened. You won't be permitted to enter that station with your bag, but you will be permitted to enter the system elsewhere.

At a place like Vienna, that might be a challenge for a terrorist without a car. But at any of the downtown stations, or in other close-in neighborhoods, it's a short walk to another station. And Metrobuses tend to provide a link between stations, as well.

One could easily conceive of a terrorist deciding not to be screened at a station like Farragut North simply walking to Farragut West and boarding a train there.

Or to think of it another way, imagine that prior to September 11, there was no airport security. Afterwards, they put security in place at Boston Logan, Newark, and Washington Dulles only. It would still be easy for a terrorist to hijack a plane. All they'd need to do is start their journey from a different airport. Metro's permeable and brief security barriers will do nothing to stop even a moderately determined terrorist.

They're easy to avoid. Because these checks are considered outrageous by many people and because of the prevalence of social media tools like Twitter and Facebook, it's easy to determine ahead of time where these checks are happening.

A terrorist could easily check Twitter (as UnsuckDCMetro pointed out this morning), as can anyone else wishing to avoid the hassle.

They draw resources from real crime prevention. The Metro Transit Police Department is an asset to this region. I respect their officers for what they do to keep Metro safe.

But they have limited resources. The MTPD has only 423 sworn officers, certainly a small force for an agency spread across 3 "states", 86 stations, and hundreds of miles of bus lines.

Metro is not increasing the size of the Police Department as a part of these random bag checks. And that means that officers that otherwise would have been riding trains and buses, circling parking lots, or walking platforms are being pulled away from those duties.

There have been some high-profile crimes on Metro lately. In August, a brawl erupted at L'Enfant Plaza that injured 4, and reportedly involved 70 people. Metro Police officers were able to respond from Gallery Place, probably because the agency stations extra cops there to deal with unruly teenagers. What would have happened, however, if those officers had been assigned to Dupont Circle to do random bag checks?

Are these checks worth it if even one old lady gets mugged because an officer who otherwise would have been on her train was scanning bags elsewhere? How many iPhone thefts is this security theater worth? How many teenage brawls?

We already know that MTPD response times are poor. Putting officers behind security checkpoints will only exacerbate that problem.

And that seems to be the case even if TSA personnel are stationed at the checkpoints, since it appears that Metro Transit officers will always be present at the bag checks, too.

The searches decrease the utility of transit. Traveling on Metro is not always easy. All too early in the evenings, train frequencies drop precipitously. Riders who have to transfer often spend more time standing around on platforms than they do riding on trains.

These bag checks mean that riders have to add more time into their schedules. While the checks can take at least 8 minutes, even a shorter one can mean missing a train. And if they're only coming every 20 minutes, that is a significant delay to a rider. If it makes them miss the train which would connect with their hourly bus, it's even worse.

These checks make riding transit less attractive for those who choose to take Metro. And it makes it less convenient for everyone, especially those who have no alternatives.

And that probably means that some people are going to get pushed into other modes, like driving. Lost revenue for Metro is bad, but worse is increased traffic on the Beltway, more pollution in our neighborhoods, and an increasing number of car crashes.

Metro's fare increases have already driven transit ridership down, especially for short trips, where Capital Bikeshare, walking, Metrobuses, or taxis are increasingly taking up the slack. These bag checks give riders one more reason to abandon the system.

The checks could open WMATA up to lawsuits. While similar checks undertaken by the New York City MTA were upheld by the Second Circuit in MacWade v. Kelly, that does not immunize WMATA from lawsuits.

Metro operates in the Fourth Circuit and the DC Circuit. These checks are not a part of settled case law here, and it is very likely that someone who objects to these searches will sue WMATA.

And even if those circuits uphold the searches as in MacWade, there are other grounds for lawsuits. For instance, how does Metro inform riders that they can decline the search? If they do not, does that trigger a Fourth Amendment violation?

If the Transit Police are not informing each searchee that they can decline and if the searchee does not fully understand that, it would seem to bring up circumstances similar to those adjudicated in Miranda v. Arizona.

Regardless, for no apparent security benefit, WMATA would appear to be welcoming a court challenge. And as a taxpayer and daily rider, I find that troubling.

They infringe upon privacy rights. Americans are sensitive about their privacy. As well they should be. These checks do nothing to secure our transportation network, and yet they significantly infringe upon our right to privacy.

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution protects people from unreasonable searches and seizures. These searches are far from reasonable, for the variety of reasons listed here.

Random inspections are often ineffective. And even if a terrorist went to a station that was being checked, he or she might not even get selected for screening.

Truly random screening means that the vast majority of those screened are innocent commuters. And those that look or act suspicious are not necessarily screened.

Profiling like that seems to violate case law in the Second Circuit. While WMATA is not located in the Second Circuit, the only place these checks have been tested is there, and WMATA has cited that case as justification.

In New York's MacWade decision, the Second Circuit held that in order for the checks to be constitutional, they had to meet several conditions. One of those was that "police exercise no discretion in selecting whom to search, but rather employ a formula that ensures they do not arbitrarily exercise their authority" [emphasis mine].

That means that this approach checks hundreds of innocents and does not ensure that even suspicious individuals will get checked. That doesn't sound like a good approach to safety.

Of course, officers can already search someone based on probable cause, but they don't need checkpoints to do that. And using checkpoints to generate probable cause would seem to violate the spirit and letter of MacWade.

They create false perceptions in the traveling public. These searches create two false perceptions in riders, though not both in the same rider.

On the one hand, the mere fact that screenings are taking place creates an atmosphere of threat. It reminds people that they need to be suspicious and afraid. After all, a terrorist could be lurking just behind the next platform pylon.

But on the other hand, they also generate a false sense of security. Why should a rider be alert if people are screened before entering? Unfortunately, the ineffectiveness of this security measure means that transit riders are really no more secure than they were before the checks.

Treating customers with suspicion is not the way to win their patronage. As noted earlier, close to all of those being screened are going to be regular, innocent riders. Treating them like potential terrorists is insulting and inconvenient. And it's unlikely to encourage them to ride transit again.

They show poor resource planning. The planning profession is often associated with urban planning, but it's actually a much larger field. And it includes strategic and resource planning.

Planners are taught to use the Rational Planning Model to evaluate policy.

Essentially the model works like this:

  1. Identify the problem
  2. Generate solutions
  3. Generate objective assessment criteria
  4. Choose the best alternative
  5. Implement chosen alternative
  6. Continuously evaluate outcomes and repeat model as necessary
It's clear that the bag check policy was not subjected to that model.

Terrorism is a real threat. And it is a problem that needs to be addressed. But looking carefully at the approach which has been taken shows that it is riddled with holes, fails to address the core issues, and generates unintended consequences which may be larger threats to the agency than the original problem.

Metro and the Transit Police Department need to cease this program of bag checks immediately. They have angered the public, inconvenienced riders, and failed to solve or even reduce the terrorism problem.

These random bag checks make riding transit less safe. And as long as Metro wastes resources this way, it will continue to exhibit its general inability to deal effectively with the real problems of the agency.

You can speak up at the Riders' Advisory Council meeting on Monday, January 3. It's at 6:30 pm in the committee room at WMATA HQ, 600 5th Street, NW, left and then right after security. Any rider can speak, and the RAC has reached out to MTPD to see if someone can make a presentation and answer questions.


Govs, Gray hastily jump on BOT's WMATA bandwagon

Last night, following a conference call between Governors O'Malley (MD) and McDonnell (VA) and DC Mayor-Elect Vince Gray, a press release went out seeming to endorse the recommendations in the Board of Trade's report on WMATA governance.

Photo by marrngtn (Manuel) on Flickr.

The press release from the offices of the three executives seemed to endorse the report's recommendations, including those that would diminish Northern Virginia's role in governing Metro and weaken the veto which DC in particular often needs to guarantee its interests aren't overridden by more numerous suburban votes on the board.

It also appeared that Gray was already abrogating the principles he'd run upon to better listen to residents before making decisions. The press release made no mention of the Riders' Advisory Council's own report. We know McDonnell doesn't care about rider voices, but we'd hope for better from O'Malley and Gray.

Earlier yesterday, advocates from a number of transportation advocacy groups including myself met with Gray transition transportation co-chair Tom Downs, who said Gray hasn't made any decisions and of course isn't even mayor yet. He plans to analyze the report and the RAC report and give people a chance to weigh in before endorsing or promoting any specific recommendations.

Downs took responsibility for the press release not matching his own earlier statements. He said that he had sent it to Gray's PR person just for review, but failed to clarify that it was just a draft, and so she sent the release out to the media before it was done.

Downs has shown himself to be a real stand-up guy through this and the meeting in general; he also has a very thorough grasp of transportation issues, from Metro to bikes and pedestrians to Circulator and streetcars. Some observers believe he is a likely appointee to the WMATA Board for the new administration, which would be an excellent choice. (He served on the Board during his previous stint in the DC government as well.)

The COG report itself contains a number of recommendations which agree with RAC suggestions, a number of other interesting ideas, and a number of recommendations that seem designed to increase Governor McDonnell's and the Board of Trade's own power without any clear explanation of how they will improve WMATA governance.

Here are the recommendations that also appear in the RAC report:

  • Make the chief executive a CEO. The clearest path to making WMATA more effective is to get an extremely capable leader and give him or her more power to bring change to the agency. The RAC report gets into more detail about how to accomplish this and the specific ways in which the Board is curtailing the General Manager.
  • Clarify the role of Board members. There isn't a clear job description or set of roles and responsibilities for members, and different jurisdictions' members sometimes see things differently. BOT/COG feels that the suggestion higher-level Governance Commission ought to do this, while the RAC felt that the WMATA Board itself could probably do a fine job of making those decisions.
  • Stop automatically rotating the chair. As the RAC also suggested, the Board should pick a chair who has the support of all members regionally and ideally reelect a good chair for more than one year instead of just automatically rotating through all six principal member seats.
Some other ideas from the BOT/COG report have merit:
  • Coordinate policy on compensation of Board members. WMATA doesn't pay Board members. Virginia law says that officials who serve on boards get a token $50 per meeting, if they show up. Meanwhile, Prince George's County was paying Marcel Solomon $39,000 to serve on the Board. It would make sense to get regional agreement about payment. I'd suggest Board member uniformly not receive any payment.
  • Give the chair a 2-year term. This could further add continuity to leadership on the Board.
  • Create an orientation process for new Board members. Great idea.
One recommendation is already the case:
  • Require a majority vote to change committees and procedures. This is already true. Each year, the Board passes a set of official procedures which can include a few changes from last time. BOT/COG seems to be under the misconception that the incoming chair simply dictates these. This is not the case. The group has to agree to any changes.
Meanwhile, a number of ideas would simply change the allocation of power over WMATA without any convincing explanation of why this would improve things for riders and for the region:
  • Create a new super-Board with less local involvement. The BOT/COG report recommends a new layer of bureaucracy, a special "Governance Commission" that includes the Virginia and Maryland governors, the DC mayor, the GSA administrator, and the heads of the NVTC (which appoints Virginia members today and mainly represents local counties and cities), the WSTC (which appoints Maryland members but is largely controlled by the Governor), and the DC Council.

    This gives localities a fairly small role. The RAC report argued that local jurisdictions need to feel a greater sense of responsibility for WMATA, not less. In particular, Montgomery and Prince George's officials should be a part of WMATA's governance. The WSTC is three-sevenths appointees of the Governor of Maryland, so putting the WSTC chair on the proposed Governance Commission wouldn't give those counties much involvement in these decisions.

  • Remove alternates from Board meetings. Today, half the members are "alternate members," who get to participate in debates and vote in committees but not actually vote at full Board meetings unless a principal member is absent. That includes the appointees made by Montgomery and Prince George's county officials and from the City of Alexandria. BOT/COG wants to remove them entirely. There's no evidence, though, that alternate members are any worse than principal members; some are, but others are great.
  • Add one executive appointment from each jurisdiction. In place of the alternates, BOT/COG suggests letting the governors and mayor each appoint one additional member. This would mean that the Governor of Maryland would appoint all three members instead of just the two principal ones, the DC mayor two of three, and that the Governor of Virginia would get one. This gets at the core of what we always feared was the true goal of this commission: to move the power over WMATA away from officials who listen to riders and into the hands of officials who listen to the Board of Trade.
  • Give Board members fixed 4-year terms and only allow reappointing them one time. This reflects their thinking that Board members should be outside individuals as opposed to local representatives. A 4-year term seems reasonable for the subset of members who aren't public officials, but it doesn't make sense for elected officials who serve on the Board.

    More importantly, limiting members to only serving 8 years would simply remove the strong level of institutional memory many members have, which improves their decisions since they know how an issue relates to decisions made in the past. The BOT/COG report gives no reasonable justification for this idea.

  • Give the chair more control over Board members. The report actually suggests the chair should have the power to prevent individual members from talking to the public and media. Muzzling members is also not the answer. In fact, the chair sometimes has too much power; some past chairs have told staff to remove pages from presentations they planned to make to the Board because they didn't like some of the information being released. The chair should just facilitate the debate, not control the others.
  • Weaken or remove entirely the jurisdictional veto. BOT/COG was very concerned with the existing veto, which allows the principal members from any one jurisdiction (DC, MD, or VA) to block action if they all vote against a measure. While the veto has been abused at some times in the past, it's also a necessary element to prevent any two from "ganging up" on the other.

    BOT/COG suggests limiting the veto only to budget matters or to system expansion. This seems okay, but in truth nearly everything affects the budget and system expansion. Escalator maintenance costs money. Changing the SmarTrip rules could affect fare collection. WMATA has a complex formula for allocating costs among jurisdictions. If two can vote, say, to change MetroAccess eligibility rules, the third will have to pay or will save money as a result.

    As another example, Matt Watson, a former DC member, noted in his discussions with the RAC how DC once prevented having Green Line trains run on the Red Line during the time when the inner Green Line wasn't yet built. They feared that if that happened, the segment through Columbia Heights and Petworth would never get built. Therefore, DC vetoed this until WMATA had put out contracts to start building the line. This "related" to system expansion, but it was actually a veto of a service pattern change. It also had some budgetary impact, surely, but a small one.

    The bottom line is that it's impossible to define exactly when the veto is and isn't appropriate. The veto doesn't get used on really minor things or things that don't affect the vetoing jurisdiction, and some amount of public shaming has put natural caps on its use in unreasonable ways.

    Setting out a general policy listing some occasions that are appropriate or inappropriate, however, is a sensible idea.

The Board of Trade is clearly moving very fast to try to ram this report through. Governor McDonnell wants it since most of the elements reflect exactly what he's been looking for. Since he agreed to co-chair the task force, Kwame Brown is in a difficult position since it's now harder for him to oppose elements even if most DC residents come out against a part of the report.

However, Governor O'Malley and Vince Gray should restrain themselves from letting McDonnell and the Board of Trade steamroller them into poor choices. They have an alternate report that actually came from riders through a more open and public process rather than the secretive one of the BOT/COG task force. The best move would be to implement the RAC report's recommendations, which overlap considerably with the BOT/COG ones, and which actually focus on those elements that will improve governance versus just reshuffling deck chairs to benefit a few groups.


Serious fixes for WMATA, part 2: Set goals and policies

Besides appointing members who actually show up to meetings and ride transit, the WMATA Board can start fixing the authority's problems by spending more time on high-level policies and performance metrics instead of trying to decide every individual small issue.

Photo by Billy V on Flickr.

One of the biggest criticisms of the Board has been that they micromanage the agency. Ironically, one of the other criticisms of the Board is that they weren't sufficiently aware of details, like the safety problems that existed prior to the June 2009 Red Line crash.

So which is it? Should the Board stick their fingers into every little thing, or be more hands-off? Many people say the Board should be more like a "corporate board." But a corporate board wouldn't be monitoring details. If Greyhound were to have a big safety problem, people don't ask why the Greyhound Board of Directors didn't personally know about the problems. Honestly, few people know who's on the Greyhound Board of Directors anyway.

But with WMATA, people vociferiously disputed our argument that we shouldn't blame the Board. They should have made sure to know, people said. Hang them all, others said. Change has to start at the top, said Debbie Hersman, the chair of the NTSB. The Board has to be paying more attention to safety.

On the other hand, when the Board spends a lot of time on an issue, they get some amount of ridicule. They spent three meetings discussing what to do about the SmarTrips going negative. People didn't laud them for being so thorough; they called it an embarrassment, which is definitely how it sounded for those listening to the meeting.

What should the hapless Board members do? Scrutinize more or less? Delegate more, or less?

The RAC believes the answer is in choosing how they spend their time. The Board should be very involved. But they should be involved at a high level. Instead of asking why this bus was rerouted or that sign appeared in a station, set goals, and ask the General Manager to meet those goals. Spend most of the time talking about what are the right metrics, and how the authority is performing against those metrics.

Take the escalators. This has quickly become the most visible sign of Metro's dysfunction. Yet despite a number of Board meetings discussing the issue and some consultant reports, we still don't know what to expect or how things will get fixed.

At the most recent Board meeting on escalators, members spent most of the time talking about signs informing people about outages, or complaining about individual escalators that are out. Nobody asked the key questions. What is our escalator reliability today? (It was in the Vital Signs report.) Is this correctly measuring what we want to measure? (As it turned out, not quite, since it was not counting brief unplanned outages.) And most of all, what reliability rate can staff promise with the current level of resources, or what could they achieve with greater resources?

A corporate Board of Directors generally doesn't second-guess every product launch, pricing decision, or the color of boxes for products. Or, as Mort Downey put it in one of the sessions, they don't "try to hit at pitches as they come in." Instead, such a board sets goals and expects the company's head to get the job done or get fired.

Next time an issue like the escalators comes up, the WMATA Board needs to ask a few simple questions: What is the long-term goal? What is an achievable and measurable performance target? And what does the General Manager need to reach that target?


What can we seriously do to fix WMATA?

Everyone agrees WMATA has problems. Unfortunately, there are a lot more criticisms of the problems going around than actual solutions. That's because solutions are hard.

Photo by M.V. Jantzen on Flickr.

But if we're going to actually fix WMATA, instead of just complaining about it, we need to seriously discuss how to fix what's broken.

Calling for all WMATA Board members to be lined up against a wall and shot might feel satisfying after you've gotten stuck in a tunnel after a train malfunction, but it's not realistic. Dissolving the whole agency isn't going to fix anything either. The trains will still be aging, the escalators still worn out, the PID signs getting behind.

Some say that all that's really broken is funding. That WMATA quite simply can't afford to maintain all its aging equipment, leading to breakdowns and frustration. If they had the money, things would run smoothly and riders would be happy.

That's partly true, and funding is a big problem. No matter how well run an organization, it's not possible to run good transit service without the minimal resources necessary. However, good organizations also make the best of their limitations. Many DC agencies have become more efficient at delivering quality service despite limited funds as well.

The DC government even pulled itself out of a hole similar to what WMATA now finds itself in, where everything was falling apart and it gained a public reputation for total incompetence that has taken a long time to shake even once actual results turned around.

Many have said that fixing WMATA must start at the top. For that reason, the Greater Washington Board of Trade decided to examine WMATA's governance structure, and the Council of Governments, chaired by DC Councilmember Kwame Brown, signed on to participate. Unfortunately, despite early promises, the task force quickly voted to conduct almost all its deliberations in secret, shutting riders out from learning about and participating in the conversation about this important issue.

The Riders' Advisory Council therefore decided to conduct its own, more open conversation and analysis of WMATA's governance. Its committee, which I chaired, held 7 public meetings and heard from 5 current WMATA Board members, 3 former members, and representatives of business, transit advocacy, and labor groups. The RAC has now released a draft of a report for public input, and really wants to hear what you think.

The RAC developed 6 high-level recommendations:

  1. The Board is analogous to a legislature and should include public officials.
  2. The Board should set clear, high standards for its members.
  3. The Board should focus on high-level policy and objectives.
  4. The Board should act as a regional body rather than as individuals.
  5. WMATA's top staff member should be a CEO rather than a General Manager.
  6. Board decision-making should include a clear and accessible public input process.
I'll examine each of these in this series. Let start with #2, the easiest by far. WMATA Board members vary greatly in quality, and even on basic metrics that almost anyone can agree with, some are falling down on the job.

Chief among these is attendance, which GGW and the Examiner have repeatedly noted. Some Board members have missed up to two-thirds of meetings. Some worst offenders have told reporters they are involved behind the scenes, but that's not a substitute for actually participating in the meetings.

Likewise, some members come under repeated criticism for not riding bus or rail. This should is a basic qualification for Board members. The RAC therefore recommended the Board set attendance standards, to clarify to any potential member that attending is part of the job, and that jurisdictions appoint people who are going to attend and going to ride transit.

In addition, when hearing from many current and former Board members, the RAC committee noticed that people had very divergent views of what is expected of a member. Is communicating with riders part of the job? Advocating for transit publicly? The Board should create a written list of responsibilities, so that riders and jurisdictions making appointments can all be on the same page when thinking about members.

There's more to membership on the Board than simply casting votes in favor of the best proposals. Board members typically take the issues WMATA faces back to their own jurisdictions and advocate for its funding needs. Many, especially in DC and Northern Virginia, also play a role in setting local land use policy.

Land use greatly affects transit ridership and the revenues of the transit system. TOD around a station brings in more riders, especially more riders outside rush hours, than large parking lots. When people who make transit decisions are also part of the local conversation around land use, it strengthens the link between the decisions WMATA makes and the decisions the local government makes. It's best for WMATA, and for the region, when some people overlap between both.

What do you think should be qualifications for Board members? What roles and responsibilities should apply to the Board and its members?

You can read this section of the RAC report, as well as the whole report, here. Next, I'll discuss #3, how the Board should take a higher-level, more policy-focused view.


Apply for the RAC, if you really have time

The WMATA Riders' Advisory Council is opening up applications for new members. Should you apply?

If you live in Prince George's County, definitely. There is an open seat right now that is not filled.

If you live elsewhere, please apply if you're interested in making a real time commitment beyond just showing up to one meeting a month.

One-third of the RAC's members are up each year. WMATA Board members can choose to reappoint them or go with someone else. Besides the Prince George's vacancy, 7 positions are up for reappointment: 2 in DC, 2 in Fairfax County, one each in Arlington and Alexandria, and one at large.

These seats have existing members on the RAC, who might apply to be reappointed and might not. For example, I am one of the DC members up for reappointment and I will be repplying. But I don't know if the other existing members will apply or not, or if they will get reappointed if they do.

Typically, the Board member(s) for each jurisdiction decide who to appoint. For example, Elizabeth Hewlett, the Prince George's voting member, will probably choose the Prince George's appointment.

When making these decisions, I'm going to be encouraging Board members to look for people who can make a time commitment to the RAC. The group meets once a month, but there's no way to really get much done in one two-hour meeting a month. We can hear a staff presentation on an issue and ask one question each or give a brief comment, but that's really not a strong voice of riders. The RAC should do much more.

This year, we've started having committees, which the RAC had originally but then dropped. There's a bus committee, and the news about the Pennsylvania Avenue bus reroute came from a rider attending that committee. I chair a Long-Term Projects Committee, and that's where we got the staff presentation on the rationale for design decisions on the 7000 Series railcars.

The RAC has a special role as a committee chartered by the WMATA Board which gives them special powers. In particular, the Board often asks staff if they've consulted with the RAC on important issues, which means the RAC can get presentations on plans which might not otherwise be public yet. They take RAC input more seriously than others.

But the RAC can't do this unless it has a number of members who can take time to organize and attend committee meetings. Last night, we had a presentation on fare policy principles. Many of these principles were the same things being debated during the budget negotiations, and they will affect the shape of any future fare increase. Only two members and one member of the public showed up to speak with the two staffers taking an extra couple hours to get rider input. To be frank, that's pathetic.

Many of you ask questions about bikes on the system, or escalator outages, or SmarTrip problems, or issues with station agents, or bus stop placement decisions. RAC members are interested in many of these issues too, but can't get presentations on all of them in the regular meetings, and when there is a regular meeting presentation, there isn't time to really delve into the issue. We spent two hours just on 7000 Series railcars, which is why we know so much now.

To get a real discussion about this, we need someone on the RAC who wants to organize a committee meeting to hear about one of these issues, and a number of members who want to attend a meeting. Everybody doesn't need to attend every committee meeting, but if every member can go to about one a month on average, there would be plenty to go around.

There are a few members who regularly go to the bus committee, which is working well. The budget committee was also a big success earlier this year, and Carl Seip, the at-large member up for reappointment, organized that and did a nice job. But I suspect about half of the RAC's members have not participated in any committees this year.

If you would like to spend at least 2 evenings a month hearing in detail about Metro issues (and perhaps then writing about the issue for GGW to share with more riders), please apply to the RAC. Please make it clear in your application that you'd like to do this, and the Board might even pick you.

Even if you don't get on, members of the public can attend the committee meetings, and we had a number of folks not on the RAC at the 7000 Series meeting as well as others asking some very excellent questions. You can continue to participate in that way and help grow the rider voice.

But if you just would be interested in showing up once a month to be on a rider focus group where you give your quick reaction to a staff presentation and then go home, it might make more sense to just keep reading Greater Greater Washington instead.


At least one Metro customer service issue getting fixed

Customer service is one of the most frequent source of complaints about Metro, from poor communication during snowstorms to a few unhelpful station agents or train or bus drivers to a confusing feedback form. Is this much-maligned aspect of Metro's service ready to turn a corner?

Barbara Richardson, Metro's relatively new Assistant General Manager for Customer Service, Communications and Marketing, talked about her desire to address Metro's communication and customer service issues at last week's RAC meeting.

RAC members suggested making WMATA's Twitter account a two-way communication channel, the way DC agencies like DCRA respond to comments and complaints and try to get solutions, and setting out clearer response times for questions or complaints sent via the Web or on the phone.

Richardson was also able to report progress on one rider complaint. After Dennis Jaffe asked WMATA to post the phone number for police in buses, trains and stations, Richardson and her team got to work, and this sign will soon start to appear:

Richardson with the new sign (which might still change slightly.)


WMATA presents options for SmarTrip negative balances

WMATA raised the hackles of many riders when it announced SmarTrips would no longer go negative. Responding to the outcry, CFO Carol Kissal and her team developed six alternatives for handing the issue, which they presented to the Riders' Advisory Council last night.

Photo by MattHurst on Flickr.

RAC members complimented Kissal and her team on presenting a number of options and seeking rider feedback. While it would have been better to get more feedback before the initial announcement, the followup garnered more praise. The WMATA Board will discuss the issue on September 16th.

To recap, right now SmarTrip cards cost $5. In most places you can buy them, including vending machines at stations with parking and most CVS, Giant and other stores, they cost $10 and come with $5 of stored value. At commuter stores and Metro sales offices as well as some private stores, they go for $5 and a zero balance.

A rider who buys a zero balance card can immediately get on rail or bus and take a trip, going negative. They just have to fill the card up to or above zero before they can get onto transit again using the card. The SmarTrip negative balance option doesn't apply to parking garages; people have to have the parking charge on the card.

Compare this to the paper farecards, which you can't use to get on a bus or train unless it has the minimum fare, and can't exit without adequate fare. If you don't have enough, you have to go to the Exitfare machine, which only take cash and are limited in number.

The WMATA Board asked for the SmarTrip price to go down to $2.50 to make them more affordable for poorer riders. However, officials started to worry. Someone could buy a SmarTrip for $2.50 (at a commuter store or sales office) with $0 value, immediately take a $4.95 long-distance ride or $6 airport bus trip, and throw away the card, basically cheating Metro out of up to $3.50.

Their best guess was that this could cost $1 million a month in lost fare revenue, plus quickly deplete the existing stock of SmarTrips. In my earlier post, I expressed skepticism that there would really be so much cheating, and they wait and see whether there is indeed abuse. They told the RAC last night that this would be an option, and they do have the ability to track how many SmarTrips go negative and then don't get used any more.

Or, they could modify the plan. They devised six options:

A: Wait and see. Drop SmarTrips to $2.50 but don't change the way any systems work. Track whether there is widespread abuse.

B: Rebate. Charge $5 for the card, but automatically give a $2.50 fare credit to the rider after they complete 2 trips. Basically, it's like paying $5 and getting $2.50 of fare on the card, but you have to ride a couple of times first.. This would require some small programming changes which they are researching.

C: No negative. This is the plan they suggested last week. It will require delaying until October so the Exitfare machines can be modified. They actually already have the SmarTrip technology installed, and won't cost WMATA much to reconfigure, but it will take a little time.

D: Don't reduce the price. Keep everything the way it is today, with $5 SmarTrips.

E: Require a minimum fare to enter. Instead of letting a rider enter with $0 on their SmarTrip, require $1.10 or more. That way, it's much harder to cheat. Since $1.10 plus $2.50 card cost is $3.60, only trips over $3.60 could result in a negative balance that costs WMATA if the rider throws away the card. Plus, someone who buys a card would have to put $1.10 on it to maximize cheating, which takes time and effort for little reward.

They estimate that lost revenue would be only $75,000 per month. This option would require some programming change and mean a small delay, probably until December.

F: Cap the negative balance at $2.50. The system could still let people go negative, but only to $2.50 in the hole. More than that and they'd need to use Exitfare. This means nobody can cheat, and most riders won't get stuck because many trips are less than $2.50 and most people who go negative start with some balance on their cards already. However, some people would need to use Exitfare. This would also require a delay until about December.

While I'm not sure I would pick this one, I suggested an option G: Sell all cards with minimum value. As it is, many cards at stores cost $10 for $5 of value, and many stores will simply start selling $7.50 cards for $10 instead. WMATA's old vending machines at stations with parking also can't handle different prices, so they plan to simply load them up with $7.50 cards and keep charging $10.

If all cards cost $5 and came with $2.50 of value, it would be difficult to cheat. If you purchased a card and then took a long trip, the most you could cheat is $1 on an airport bus, which is also possible under today's system. To cheat more, you would need to take more than one trip. This is very similar to option B, except you don't have to wait or take two trips first.

However, the primary purpose of the change was to reduce the barriers for riders with low incomes to get SmarTrips, since some apparently find the initial outlay of $5 to be an obstacle. Paying $5 but getting $2.50 in value could be better, since even if they got a $2.50 card with no value those riders would still have to load some money on at least before the second trip. But it still means that you need $5 right then and there to get a card.

I therefore lean toward options A (just drop the price), E (require some fare to enter), or F (only allow negative up to $2.50). If A, WMATA should pick a backup plan and know how quickly they can implement it. That way, if A does create excessive cheating, they could go right to the backup.

If I had to pick one, I'd say F. It's strictly better than C (no negative), except for the extra two-month delay and unless there's a substantially larger cost to modify the software to disallow negatives over $2.50 versus modifying it to disallow all negatives. But it eliminates the cheating opportunity while still allowing most riders to go negative in most circumstances.

What do you think? I'll compile your suggestions and send them to Ms. Kissal.


Why doesn't Metro post the police phone number?

Periodic announcements on Metro buses urge riders to contact authorities if they see something suspicious, but how many people know the phone number for the Metro Transit Police Department (MTPD)?

This is a sign that was developed in 2007 at the urging of the Riders' Advisory Council, says Dennis Jaffe in a letter from the Sierra Club yesterday. However, the sign was never posted in trains or buses.

Jaffe notes that in several recent incidents, riders didn't know how to contact MTPD. When two riders were recently trapped in Cheverly Metro after the station manager mistakenly closed up before the last train of the night, they called 911 and the county police, not MTPD. They originally tried the Metro phone number, but got trapped in a phone tree and ended up at a recording telling them to call back during the day.

At a December 2006 meeting of the RAC, Jaffe recounts, "Metro Transit Police Department Lt. Brian Heanue indicated that the vast majority of reports received by the police department come from Metro staff to whom the public submits information, rather than from the public directly. Lt. Heanue also indicated that the Department would welcome receiving more reports directly from the public."

After that meeting, WMATA developed the above sign, but it didn't get posted. Why? Jaffe speculates, "One possible reason for Metro's inaction is the ongoing debate over how many phone numbers Metro should provide for the public to contact the agency."

Currently, WMATA's policy is that there should be only a single phone number for riders to contact it about anything. That centralizes the process, which is an understandable impulse from an administrative standpoint, but it reduces the value to riders.

Photo from WMATA.
For example, the NextBus discs give the general customer service phone number, not a NextBus-specific phone. The first time I called, it said "say the service you want," so I named the bus line, not realizing that this was a general phone number. You have to say "NextBus." Why force people to go to that extra work? When I give a link to a page on, I can link right to it. I don't have to tell people how to navigate from the home page.

Maybe some people will call the NextBus number, or the MTPD number, really wanting something else. But if all the numbers go to the same IVR system, just with different starting points, the initial prompt could easily say something like, "Welcome to NextBus for Metrobus. Say the name of the route or enter a stop number. If you want other Metro services, say 'main menu.'" The MTPD number could do something similar.

As Dennis has noted, it's not just on the phone where WMATA over-centralizes customer service in a way that makes it difficult for riders to report problems. Unfortunately, that sometimes leads to presentations touting the lack of complaints as evidence that things are working well when they actually reflect the difficulty of giving feedback. Accurate information might lead to a short-term uptick in reported problems, but that will only better reflect reality, and better help WMATA staff do their jobs and prioritize resources.

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