Officials outline plan to overhaul Metro

By Ann Scott Tyson
Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Washington region's top transportation officials have outlined a two-year plan for implementing substantial changes in how Metro is run, including redefining the roles of the general manager and board of directors.

The plan comes after two critical reports, one by a joint task force of the Greater Washington Board of Trade and Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, that blamed shortcomings in Metro's governance for a decline in the transit agency's performance, including its safety record, and waning public confidence in the system.

It also arrives as Metro is preparing to name a new general manager and amid a significant changing of the guard on its board.

Transportation executives from the District, Maryland and Virginia issued a seven-page plan outlining a timeline for carrying out the main recommendations of the joint task force, with the first steps to take place in the next six months and any required legislative changes to be introduced in time for the January 2012 legislative session.

However, while urging the immediate implementation of the least controversial and simplest reforms, the executives called for further discussion on most of the proposals, stating that a regional consensus and input from the federal government are vital.

Although many recommendations "appear to have wide acceptance" among the region's leaders, "structural changes to the Board membership and WMATA [Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority] Compact amendments require additional work," wrote the plan's authors (Maryland Transportation Secretary Beverley K. Swaim-Staley, Virginia Transportation Secretary Sean T. Connaughton and Interim D.C. Transportation Director Terry Bellamy). They acknowledged that changing the compact - which requires passing identical legislation in all three jurisdictions - will take "at least two years."

The plan also stopped short of endorsing one of the major recommendations of the task force, calling "premature" the creation of a seven-member governance commission composed of the governors of Maryland and Virginia, the D.C. mayor, the General Services Administration administrator, and the chairmen of the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission, the D.C. Council and the Washington Suburban Transit Commission.

Instead, it called for "a non-permanent working group" to handle the recommendations in the near term.

Metro rider groups agreed with that decision, but also criticized a process for reforming Metro that they said failed to give an adequate voice to elected officials and ordinary citizens.

"We do not need a new super-board . . . we should continue a process to evaluate governance reforms," the Coalition for Smarter Growth said in a statement.

The implementation plan urges Metro's board of directors to create a "multi-year, regionally focused chairmanship" immediately. It noted that the board will meet to select a new chairman on Jan. 27, and said that change is allowed within the compact.

It also stated that the Metro board has already acted on a few recommendations, confirming that the Metro general manager should act as a chief executive officer with "clear authority for all aspects of day-to-day management." And, it agreed to implement an orientation program for board members. Meanwhile, Metro's general counsel is expected to give an opinion by Jan. 16 on whether the board can make a change that would diminish the role of alternate board members.

Over the next six months, the plan stated, the working group would focus on defining the roles and responsibilities of the Metro board and its chairman. It would also focus on streamlining a process for appointing board members, creating staggered terms to prevent a major turnover on the 16-seat board such as the one now unfolding, and a uniform compensation process for board members - some of whom earn tens of thousands of dollars a year while others receive no compensation.

The group will also make a recommendation on whether to limit the jurisdictional veto held by some board members - a power that has been criticized for allowing board members with narrow parochial motivations to block board actions.

By the end of the year, the plan calls for the two governors and the mayor to finalize an agreement on what structural changes are necessary, and to draft legislation.

Finally, by the end of 2012, the plan envisions action on any legislation necessary to carry out the Metro governance reforms.

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