Wanted: A federal voice at Metro*

Sunday, September 19, 2010

WE DON'T know exactly why the Obama administration has failed to fill one of two voting seats the federal government controls on the Metro board of directors. We do know that it's high time to fill it, and that if the bureaucrats assigned to the task at the General Services Administration can't get the job done, then the White House should get involved.

The feds secured the two voting seats, plus two alternates, in legislation enacted almost a year ago. The same legislation put Congress on the hook for $150 million in annual capital spending on Metro over the coming decade. That was the bare bones of the deal: Metro got the promise of additional federal funding; the feds got two votes out of eight -- the others belong to Maryland, Virginia and the District -- on the Metro board.

The administration moved relatively quickly to appoint half its allotment. Mortimer L. Downey, a transportation pro who once ran New York City's transit system, was named a director, and Marcel C. Acosta, a former top executive in the Chicago system, was named an alternate. So far, so good. Then . . . nothing.

The GSA has been screening and interviewing candidates. We're told that the agency did send feelers out to at least one candidate some months ago. The candidate declined the appointment.

That may be understandable. After all, federal directors on the Metro board are paid nothing for the job, and anyone who accepted it would be assuming a role that could be thankless at best. With a chilling recent record of accidents, safety lapses and mismanagement, Metro is a mess and remains vulnerable to more incidents. Furthermore, some federal employees might be barred from accepting an appointment because of conflict of interest concerns.

Nonetheless, the GSA's failure or inability to fill the voting seat is extremely troubling. Metro has begun seeking a new full-time general manager; shouldn't there be considerable federal input? Nearly half of Metro's daily bus and rail ridership consists of federal workers; more still are federal contractors. Just a couple of months ago, the National Transportation Safety Board issued a slashing report on Metro's management problems -- including the board's shortcomings. Having fought hard for two seats at Metro's governing table, how could the feds continue to leave one unfilled?

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