In February, Robert J. Smith of Maryland became chairman of the Metro board of directors. The Gaithersburg Republican has taken a number of controversial stands on issues affecting the region's transit system, which last week adopted fare and fee increases for the second year in a row. Staff writer Steven Ginsberg interviewed him by e-mail.
QYou've just raised fares for the second year in a row and some Metro board members are already talking about another increase next year. What would you say to riders who feel like costs are going up too fast?
AThe board has pressed hard on management to reduce costs. In fact, budget costs of nearly $30 million were reduced just in this budget without reducing service. Tens of millions were reduced in the past three budgets prior to my arrival. Nearly three-quarters of the cost of running Metro are employee related. It is a labor-intensive system in a high cost labor market. Compared to other systems around the country it is also a high quality system. I just got back from Chicago, and they don't hold a candle to our system.
Some board members have described the fare hikes as an attack on low-income residents. What are you doing to ensure that they continue to have commuting options?
While the fare increases were across-the-board, I believe that any analysis would show that the increased fare burden actually fell disproportionately high on suburban rail riders who also drive cars to our stations. The nickel increase on bus was actually mitigated for regular low-income riders by maintaining the current fare for the bus pass. A regular low-income bus rider who uses the bus to get to work is actually facing no increase in fare.
You've been criticized for bringing a more partisan tone to the Metro board. How would you describe your style of leadership?
I don't think that partisan tone is an appropriate charge. I don't believe that I have ever so much as mentioned anyone's party at a single meeting. In fact, I have let go the comments some other members have made that were negatively directed toward the president. In reality over 95 percent of the votes that have been taken since I joined Metro have been unanimous.
It is simply not possible for all of us to agree on every issue. I argue forcefully and with every tool available to me on behalf of the state of Maryland. I do not fault my colleagues or question their motives for taking a different position or defending their jurisdiction. The big difference between my predecessors and I, seems to be that I work to forge a majority and I am not necessarily concerned about unanimity.
You were appointed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. What are your marching orders from his administration? What are their goals for Metro?
The state's position regarding Metro and my own views are very much in synch. We need to provide the best public transit service possible to the most riders possible within the budgetary limitations that are dictated by the economic conditions of our region, our state, and our ridership. We want to have a high-quality system. The funds for that system ultimately come from real people who work for a living, and they are not unlimited.
You've run unsuccessfully for office several times. Do you view your position as a springboard to another run?
Given the results of the 2002 elections, where 31 of the 32 legislative seats in Montgomery County were taken by members of the other party, the registration numbers in my district and the vote tally in my district, I'm flattered that you would even ask. It's difficult to conceive of a scenario where I would be a candidate in the foreseeable future. I don't rule it out absolutely, but someone would have to convince me that there is a plan by which I might actually have a chance of winning. While you question my position as a potential springboard, I think the argument could easily be made that it might, in fact, be a millstone.
How many times a week do you ride Metro?
I ride the rail at least once, and often two and three times, a week. I ride a bus occasionally. After my experience in Chicago last week, I can honestly say I think we have a first class system here in Washington.