In Response to Criticism, Metro to Form Riders Advisory Council
Wednesday, September 14, 2005
Metro's board of directors, under pressure to become more accountable, is expected tomorrow to create a riders advisory council designed to give passengers a voice in management decisions.
The panel, the first of its kind in Metro's 29-year history, would be composed of 21 regular riders of the subway, Metrobus or MetroAccess, the curb-to-curb service for disabled people.
"It's 30 years overdue," said Metro board Chairman T. Dana Kauffman, who represents Fairfax County. "You can't assume based on reports and based on management analysis that something's working. You need to hear directly from the people who use the service."
Kauffman said Metro management has resisted the idea of a riders advisory group. "I've yet to find a large organization that welcomes criticism," he said. "Change has to be forced, and that's what we're doing."
The idea for the council came from the Washington chapter of the Sierra Club, which has been lobbying in recent months for more openness at the public transit system and greater input from riders.
"We believe the revised proposal is an excellent way to provide riders with an opportunity to make their voice heard about issues that affect them," said Dennis Jaffe of the Washington chapter of the Sierra Club, which had asked Metro to make several changes to the proposal to give the riders advisory council a degree of independence. For example, Metro initially proposed that council members could not speak to the media without permission from the transit system but erased that provision after protests from Jaffe.
Metro has faced increasing scrutiny in the last year both locally and on Capitol Hill. In June, The Washington Post published a series of stories detailing how Metro mismanaged nearly $1 billion in rail car and escalator projects and has spent millions on projects not directly related to its core transportation mission. The newspaper's investigation also found that the agency ignored safety warnings and failed to effectively manage its program to transport the disabled, which is the target of both a grand jury investigation and a civil lawsuit.
The articles prompted a congressional hearing and legislation proposed in July by Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) that calls for Metro to hire an inspector general, who would track how the agency and its money are managed, investigate employee reports of wrongdoing and publicly report the findings. The legislation, which is pending, also would add two seats to the Metro board of directors for representatives of the federal government. In exchange, Metro would receive $1.5 billion in federal funds to keep trains, tracks, stations and buses in good repair and relieve the crowding that threatens to overwhelm the system.
Jack Corbett, a founder of MetroRiders.org, which represents 1,500 registered users who want improvements to the transit system, said the riders advisory council is a fine start but real reform would include adding riders to the Metro board.
"We're pleased as far as it goes," Corbett said. "But we're going to put a push on the Davis bill to get an amendment added for a nonvoting riders' representative added to the board, similar to what exists in New York City. Having someone who can talk to board members 10 minutes before a vote and who can raise consumer issues is far more valuable than a riders advisory council that meets for three hours once a month."
While some of the 12 Metro board members ride the trains, very few ride Metrobus, and only one is a daily rider. All but one Metro board member, Charles Deegan of Prince George's County, have refused to release records documenting the frequency of their travel on the Metro system.
Among the letters and e-mails sent to Metro by 157 individuals and organizations during a public comment period, several stressed the need for Metro directors to hear firsthand from riders.
"Regular riders . . . are in the best place to challenge Metro to improve," wrote daily rider Harry Sanders of Silver Spring. "For example, I believe a Riders Advisory Council could have warned about the absurdity of reducing Metrorail trains to two cars in the evening. Because we ride Metro day and night we know how [crowded] night trains are and we know the frustration of long waits followed by having to stand on a crowded train. [Metro] decision-makers probably understand peak hour overcrowding issues but there are many other problems that only a regular rider can identify."
One writer said that Metro's political survival depends on such reforms as a riders council. "The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority needs to create a strong and independent Riders Advisory Council to improve the way it does business in this town," wrote Federico Cura. "I don't have to describe in detail all the missteps incurred by the agency in recent years, but these are numerous and serious. This year's articles in The Washington Post spell these out better than I would. As a long time transit advocate in this town and member of Arlington County's Transportation Commission, my role in defending Metro has become this past year that much harder."