Report: Metro's governance structure is dangerously outdated, needs to be overhauled

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 17, 2010; 9:58 PM

Metro's four-decade-old governance structure is ambiguous and outdated and fails to produce accountability for the Washington region's transportation system, contributing to fatal accidents, escalator and elevator outages, and declining public confidence in the system, according to a report issued Wednesday.

The 35-page report by a task force organized by the Greater Washington Board of Trade and the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments recommended a dramatic overhaul in how Metro is governed, saying that having a weak organization contributes to Metro's failures as much as a lack of funding does.

"There is a steadily declining level of confidence in Metro," Jim Dinegar, president of the Board of Trade, said at a news conference. That erosion of faith among riders, jurisdictions, business leaders and government officials threatens the future of the system, he said. "We're frankly not up to par," he said.

"We think this is urgent. We think the time is right," said David Robertson, executive director of the Council of Governments, noting that Metro's leadership is in flux with the search for a new general manager, who could be named before the end of the year.

The task force called for creating a governance commission composed of the governors of Maryland and Virginia and the mayor of the District as well as the heads of the four appointing authorities - which include the federal government - that select Metro's 16-member board of directors. Although some less drastic recommendations could be carried out in the short term, the most ambitious changes would require changing the compact that defines Metro's governing structure. That action would require the agreement of all the local jursidictions and would probably take at least a year.

The report sparked immediate controversy because of a recommendation that Maryland, Virginia and the District take on a "much stronger role" in selecting the members and chairman of Metro's board of directors, including by appointing a regionally focused chairman from outside the board membership, effectively reducing the influence of elected officials.

The task force "is not convinced that elected officials are able to adopt a long-term, regional perspective," the report said. "For example, they may elect to postpone a vital investment to avoid service cuts or fare increases that are unpopular with their local constituents," it said, in part by using veto power. It called for curbing or eliminating the veto power of individual board members.

Virginia Democratic Reps. Gerald E. Connolly and James P. Moran Jr. warned in a statement that the task force recommendations could dilute representation of local jurisdictions.

The Metro Riders' Advisory Council also sharply countered the task force in its own recently issued draft report on Metro governance, which stated that "the Board is analogous to a legislature and should include public officials." The council consists of 21 members from throughout the region.

"We think there is a lot of value in the role of elected officials on the board," said David Alpert, vice chairman of the council.

Board member Jim Graham, who represents Ward 1 on the D.C. Council, said that although he agreed with many of the task force recommendations, he worried that curbing the veto power could create a problem. "There are suburban versus inner city tensions," he said, and without veto power, "it would be easy for Virginia and Maryland to outvote the District."

Transit advocates also criticized what they called a lack of transparency in the task force's work and said they were concerned that riders will lack a voice as the process goes forward. "We've been very concerned about the closed-door nature" of the task force, said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth.

Both the task force and the Riders' Advisory Council reports called for short-term steps to better define the responsibilities of Metro's board and general manager, with the task force concluding starkly that "there is no clear understanding of who is accountable for issues such as day-to-day management, communication, operations and safety."

Both reports also stressed the need to elevate the role of the board to handle major policy matters and increase its regional focus, while lessening its micromanagement and parochialism.

"When you have a board member called at home because there is an escalator down, that is a problem," Robertson said, acknowledging that it was a problem because Metro itself was not responsive enough.

Graham said the board is already moving in that direction. "We've moved away very dramatically from the micromanagement I first encountered," said Graham, who joined the board more than a decade ago.

The task force called for increasing continuity by giving the board chairman a four-year term, in contrast to the current year. It would also limit the terms of board members to two four-year terms.

Both reports called for strengthening the general manager by defining the position as a chief executive officer with clear authority and autonomy over Metro's daily operations.

Metro "has had two GMs and two interim GMs over the past five years," Dinegar said. "No organization can operate effectively with that kind of turnover," he said in a statement.

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