Riders want Metro board to share their pain, but it’s not fundamental to board’s business

Robert Thomson
Columnist November 23, 2013

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

Metro board members and also all executives earning more than, say, $75,000 annually should be required to ride the bus, and also to take at least a few Metro train trips at the height of rush hour and also at off-hours, when trains are widely spaced.

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region. View Archive

If they don’t know what commuting at rush hour on overcrowded, scarce Blue Line or Red Line trains is like, they have no business being in charge of the system.

And if they don’t have to ride buses on overcrowded lines, or on lines that deliver about half as much service as their schedules say, the same applies.

I don’t think much of them getting free transit passes, either. They’ll never know how ever-increasing train fares hurt low-income workers if they get nothing but free rides.

These people are not kings or queens or even presidents. Let ’em pay their way and see how the rest of us have to live.

— Lynda Meyers, Arlington

Board members don’t need to ride the Metro system. They are not beholden to the riders.

The transit authority is structured so that these non-elected members are beholden only to the government entities that appoint them. Civic concerns about Metro’s governance and its accountability to its customers have resulted in no fundamental changes in the way the board does business.

Once in a while, concerns about a lack of contact between the transit board and transit riders will create a ripple. It happened in 2005 when the board organized its Riders’ Advisory Council.

That was a good start. The council’s monthly meetings are very different from board meetings. Council members might, for example, get into a debate about proposals to change Metrobus routes in which they can discuss where the buses go, how often they arrive and how crowded they are.

Many council members have served with conscience and concern for the interests of riders, but these are volunteers who serve at the pleasure of the board. They have no real power to influence decisions on behalf of riders.

The Metro board members, meanwhile, continue to exercise their fiduciary duties. They approve budgets and fare increases. They spend gobs of their public meeting time refining the names they will assign to stations, making sure to promote the interests of nearby institutions.

Metro board members rarely crusade for changes that benefit riders. They don’t publicly rebel over changes in Blue Line service or brawl with top management over the performance of rail-car air conditioners.

But these are not rider representatives. If they were, then a prime topic of public discussion at Thursday’s board meeting would have been the repeated meltdowns in Red Line service. Not a peep about that.

In board chairman Tom Downs’s monthly report, he focused on the possibility that the federal transit benefit will soon be cut in half if Congress doesn’t act.

This is potentially a big problem for Metro, and it gets the board’s attention. Federal and local employees who receive this benefit are a major part of Metrorail’s ridership. For some, it’s the reason they ride Metro rather than drive to work, so if they don’t have the financial incentive, they may stop riding.

If so, Metro will lose part of that huge indirect subsidy provided by the federal transit program, and the revenue would have to be made up elsewhere, perhaps by budget cuts.

Sometimes, a board member will ask the staff a question in public that is based on personal experience and channels the day-to-day concerns of riders.

Tom Bulger, a D.C. representative on the board, asked about the lighting at the Red Line’s Farragut North station, where the ceiling has been under repair for several years.

“Looks to me like it’s almost done, but not quite done, because they still have the Home Depot lights hanging from the ceiling,” he said, in a perfect description of the view from mid-platform.

Mortimer L. Downey, one of the board’s federal representatives, also viewed the system from a rider’s perspective when he asked about station illumination. At L’Enfant Plaza, he said, Metro’s dark-blue construction panels seem to absorb what light there is. It “makes the place even darker than it was before,” Downey observed.

Such comments show the potential for a transit authority with a top-down focus on its customers. But the transit authority is not structured to make this a way of life.

Without that, riders’ concerns about whether the authority’s top people use the system come to nothing. The board can pass a budget and raise your fare without setting foot on a train or a bus.

Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer’s name and home community. Write Dr. Gridlock at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or e-mail drgridlock@washpost.com .

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