Metro board members decided yesterday to create a Riders Advisory Council made up of rail, bus and paratransit customers from across the region to address concerns that the agency is unresponsive to the public.
But critics from several organizations concerned about transit service said Metro's plan will do little to open the organization to public scrutiny.
T. Dana Kauffman, chairman of the board and a Fairfax County supervisor, acknowledged that Metro has had problems communicating with its customers and called yesterday's decision to establish the council a first step to opening up the transit agency to public view.
"That specific proposal has been the most consistently requested for two decades," Kauffman said. "Now we're on the cusp of really making that happen."
The board is asking for public comment before finalizing details about how the advisory panel would work.
Under the board's proposal, the 18 members of the council -- six each from Maryland, Virginia and the District -- would meet one night a month to discuss such issues as the transit agency budget, proposed route changes and customer service. It would develop recommendations for the board and hold public meetings to hear views on various issues.
The plan calls for several months of review and selection before the council is finalized in December, a year after it was initially proposed.
Riders and some government leaders have said the agency's board and its managers do not know enough about what it is like to ride the trains and buses and are unresponsive to customers.
The board's latest move does not go far enough, some groups said.
"They've begun to make some progress, but their response to real reform is paralysis," said Dennis Jaffe of the Sierra Club, which proposed starting the advisory council but now is withholding its support. "What's needed is a powerful message from outside of the agency that clearly articulates that this is what you've got to do to change."
The Sierra Club has been pushing for creation of an independent committee of riders that can hire staff members and, if necessary, go directly to lawmakers with complaints.
Under the plan, the transit authority would appoint a staff member to handle administrative tasks and be a liaison between the advisory council and the board of directors. But that means the staff person would be beholden to the board and unwilling to take on tasks that might embarrass it, Jaffe said.
John J. Corbett of MetroRiders.org, a forum for riders to air their grievances, complained that the makeup of the panel would keep his group, which represents the region as a whole, from getting a seat at the table, he said.
Details of the plan will be available Monday on the transit authority's Web site, www.metroopensdoors.com. Metro will accept comments from Monday through Aug. 16.
Metro board members were divided about the details.
"I think we're making this whole thing way more difficult than it ought to be," said Chris Zimmerman, the Arlington representative on the board.
Dan Tangherlini, the D.C. representative on the board, said many involved in creation of the panel seem to be missing the point of giving a voice to the people who ride public transportation every day.
"I'm a big supporter of the advisory council. I just think we're overthinking it," he said. "We need to stop fooling under the hood and begin to drive the bus."
Tangherlini, who said that the timetable seemed unnecessarily long, said he is particularly concerned that special-interest groups and riders with time to attend meetings might have disproportional influence.
Comments on the advisory council proposal can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org or Debra Johnson, Director of Project Communications, Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, 600 Fifth St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20001.