Will WMATA get the message on governance reform?

Monday, January 17, 2011; 8:02 PM

MARYLAND'S AND Virginia's governors and the District's mayor have added their voices to those saying that Metro governance is outmoded and ineffective and that it has contributed to the decline of the rail and transit system. The question is whether that message has gotten through to the board that oversees the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) - and how aggressive it will be in making the changes that are so urgently needed.

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D), Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) and D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) last week announced a two-year plan to restructure how Metro is run. The plan, written by top transportation officials from the three jurisdictions, comes on the heels of a critical report from a regional task force that spotlighted the dysfunctional structure as a key factor in the system's service problems, safety issues and waning public confidence. The plan calls for a number of immediate actions to be taken while laying out a timeline for other recommendations that need either more study or legislative action. A Government Accountability Office report on WMATA governance commissioned by Sen. Barbara Mikul-ski (D-Md.) is expected to be completed in July and should help clarify many of the issues.

An early sign of whether the 16-member multi-jurisdictional board will be a partner to change will come Jan. 27, when it meets for an organizational meeting that will include the election of a new chair and the adoption of new board procedures. Past practice has been to rotate the chair among the three jurisdictions for one-year stints, which has encouraged parochialism and disjointed leadership. Fairfax County Supervisor Catherine Hudgins, currently the board's vice chair, is next in line but, as able as Ms. Hudgins is, the board needs to consider whether her selection would be in line with the "multi-year, regionally focused chairmanship" urged by the task force and endorsed by the three executives.

If the board is serious about ending business as usual, it would - at the very least - lengthen the term of office. Even better would be to consider Mortimer L. Downey, the former U.S. deputy transportation secretary who joined the board last year as the first representative of the federal government. A different approach would send a powerful message about the will for reform. Other common-sense changes, such as limiting the use of the jurisdictional veto or establishing rules that better define the role of board members, are also in order.

Some board members have suggested they have their hands full with welcoming new representatives to the board, searching for a new general manager and contending with the myriad problems confronting the agency. What they need to realize is that fixing the flaws in the board's operation is a key to unlocking some of those difficult issues.

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