Washington region should embrace Metro governance reforms

Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 27, 2010; 8:23 PM

As the Washington region begins an important effort to fix Metro's outdated, unwieldy governing apparatus, here's a way to appreciate the scale of the challenge: The task requires eight separate governmental bodies representing 12 distinct political jurisdictions to agree to rearrange how they oversee a ninth body, the transit system itself.

What's more, many of the changes recently proposed by a high-powered area task force would affect spending, taxes and political patronage, which are all of critical interest to the various politicians and bureaucrats making the decisions.

If that's not daunting enough, consider that the biggest changes would require four entities - Maryland, Virginia, the District and Congress - to agree unanimously on identical wording to change the 44-year-old regional compact that created Metro.

The myriad competing interests have "created a kind of Gordian knot, and it takes a powerful force to cut through that," said Thomas Downs, a former top D.C. transportation official and former Metro board member who's now co-chairman of the transportation committee on Mayor-elect Vince Gray's transition team.

As a result, it would be easy to cynically assume that the process is headed for failure. How can Metro possibly transform its entire governance structure when it can't even keep the escalators oiled?

Nevertheless, riders, politicians, bureaucrats and anybody else who cares about the Washington region should pitch in and strive to ensure that most of the reforms are adopted - and promptly. It's a good sign that Gray (D), Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) and Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) have quickly set a 60-day deadline for agreeing on a detailed plan to adopt the steps.

Although the measures are not sufficient by themselves to cure Metro's ailments, they are a necessary part of the recuperation. They would put Metro in a considerably better position to overcome its three biggest current shortcomings: lack of safety, lack of reliability and lack of cash.

"The safety crisis, both real and perceived, does provide a lot of incentive for making these changes," Downs said.

I don't have space to describe - and you probably don't have appetite to read - all 12 findings and 18 recommendations issued Nov. 17 by the blue-ribbon task force sponsored by the Greater Washington Board of Trade and the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. But here's a summary of the principal proposals and accompanying risks:

Get the top dogs more involved. The most ambitious reform would create a new, seven-person commission to oversee the Metro board and make sure it does a better job, such as by insisting that the system build a safety culture. The commission would include, among others, the governors of Maryland and Virginia, the District mayor and the head of the federal General Services Administration.

That should be a big plus, because it would dramatically raise the pressure on those four top officials to take public responsibility, finally, for overseeing Metro and helping it obtain enough money. Until now, the two governors and mayor have been content to leave the job to lower-ranking officials. Nobody of consequence was held accountable when Metro messed up. (The GSA is a separate case because it was only this year that it got a seat on the Metro board.)

The plan creates a danger in Virginia, however. The governor's extra authority would dilute the power of local jurisdictions, including Fairfax and Arlington counties and the city of Alexandria. Democratic lawmakers who dominate those suburbs are worried that the state government would neglect Metro, especially because McDonnell is a Republican.

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