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Change proposed for Metro WMATA board

By Robert Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 18, 2010; 5:03 PM

Name three members of the Metro board of directors. Not many riders can. Commuters interact far more often with station managers and bus drivers than with the people who set policy. When riders comment to Dr. Gridlock about the board members' performance, they are most likely to say they just want those people to share their pain on the trains and buses before they make decisions about the frequency of eight-car trains or the maintenance of escalators.

Yet the widespread feeling that the transit system is in trouble has led some regional leaders and rider advocates to propose changes in the way Metro has always been governed. Here's a look at what's going on.

Two new proposals

Proposals for change have come from the Governance Task Force set up by the Greater Washington Board of Trade and the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments and separately from the Metro Riders' Advisory Council. Neither group has the power to implement its ideas. That would be up to the Maryland, Virginia, District and federal governments.

Metro history

When the Metro compact was created in 1966, local leaders were focused on building train lines to get federal workers in and out of the District. Today, the transit authority isn't building train lines. It's largely in the business of operating and maintaining what it has. So one question behind some of the proposals is: Does the governance structure for a construction agency meet the needs of a service agency?

The Metro compact provided that no two jurisdictions could gang up on the other in setting transit policy. Policy decisions are made by majority vote, but the majority must include at least one voting member from each jurisdiction. This comes into play most prominently when the board is making decisions about fare increases and proposed service cuts. Critics of Metro operations now ask if the jurisdictional veto is inhibiting needed changes.

The two reports examined these ideas and sometimes came to different conclusions.

Task force findings

The report expresses concern that "Metro's troubling decline in performance will continue unless fundamental changes are made to improve governance, leadership, and accountability."

l What may have been an appropriate governance structure for building a new transit system is not appropriate to operate today's mature system.

l Board members, appointed to undefined terms, are not selected in a uniform manner. The method of selecting the chairman is not designed to provide strong leadership.

l The jurisdictional veto, or at least the threat of it, does not encourage effective decision making. The governance structure does not promote accountability or regional cohesion.

l The jurisdictions should form a WMATA Governance Commission to change Metro's governance structure and hold the board accountable for its performance. This commission should clearly define the board's responsibilities and set a uniform description of the board members' role.

l Board members, who have no defined terms, should instead serve staggered four-year terms, with a maximum of one renewal.

l The current board should clarify and improve its relationship with the general manager and transit staff, defining the general manager as Metro's chief executive with clear authority and autonomy to oversee day to day operations. The jurisdictional leaders should change the Metro compact to increase the number of voting board members from two to three, with the chief executive of each jurisdiction appointing one of those members.

l The board should end the custom of rotating the chairmanship annually and should select a regionally focused chairman who would serve for two years.

l The board should limit use of the jurisdictional veto to issues concerning the budget or expansion of the system. The jurisdictions should seriously consider changing the compact to eliminate the veto entirely.

Riders' council findings

The 21-member council noted that there is a widespread perception that Metro needs to change, starting at the top, and it wanted to approach the topic from the riders' perspective. These were the council's main findings.

l The board is like a legislature and should include public officials.

l The jurisdictional veto should remain, and the board should remain at the same size.

l The board should set clear, high standards for members.

l Board members should ride trains and buses regularly, and take occasional trips on MetroAccess to experience that service as well. The jurisdictions should codify standards for attendance and for ridership and commit to holding members accountable for meeting them.

l The board should focus on major policy decisions in such areas as land use, fares, budgets and service. It also should set performance goals for the general manager and publicize them.

l The board should act as a regional body rather than pursuing individual interests. The chairmanship should not automatically rotate annually. Rather, the reelection of a capable chairman should be encouraged.

l The top staffer should be a chief executive officer rather than a general manager. This person, the primary face of Metro, should have the authority to make most operational decisions, based on board policies.

l Public input on important policies should be a standardized part of the board's decision-making process. The board should create a clear mechanism by which riders can contact individual members. The board should repeal the current rule limiting a person's public comments to once every three months.

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