The Metro board blinked, and the Riders’ Advisory Council has been saved.
In a meeting Thursday, the board decided to table its motion to dismantle the advisory group tasked with offering insights and recommendations to Metro leadership on behalf of the system’s hundreds of thousands of riders.
Up until then, the majority of board members had pushed to dissolve the group, saying that the 21-member panel was a drain on Metro resources and provided few benefits. They planned to approve a resolution Thursday giving the RAC the ax.
Instead, board members said they are committing to revamping the Riders’ Advisory Council to help make the group more impactive and more connected to regular riders.
Those changes will probably include making the group smaller — there are officially 21 spots, though only 11 are filled — and appointing a designated board member to serve as the official point person.
“One of the issues is to have outreach, so it’s not just 11 members giving us their opinions, but that they actually represent the riders,” Metro board chairman Jack Evans said. “So that’s going to have to be worked out.”
Other cities have benefited from such engagement: In New York, the Riders Alliance and the Straphangers Campaign have been considered significant voices in the fight for better and more reliable transit service.
Metro’s RAC? Not so much. In 2016, a former vice chair said he quit the group because he concluded that “there was no point to being there.”
RAC Chair Katherine Kortum said she is looking forward to working with the board in reshaping the council in a way that increases its profile and makes its work more meaningful. And she expressed gratitude to the lawmakers who spoke out in defense of the 13-year-old group.
“I have ‘Staying Alive’ in my head right now,” Kortum joked.
Those on the board who had advocated for preserving the group offered their congratulations Thursday.
“Thank you for being patient and persevering with us for the past few months,” Metro board member Michael Goldman said. “The RAC is good. The RAC is nice. The RAC is worth keeping.”
Evans aimed his remarks at the surprisingly impassioned championing that came from federal lawmakers.
“I’m so pleased by the enthusiasm from the members of Congress,” Evans said, adding that he hopes to see them remain just as impassioned about tackling issues such as federal funding for Metro’s annual operating costs and nailing down a source to pay for the transit agency’s soaring pension costs.
Metro board member Christian Dorsey said canceling the group was a bad idea. “It seems contrary to engaging riders in a constructive way,” he said, while also recognizing that rescuing the low-profile citizens’ council presented an attractive opportunity for politicians to weigh in with no cost to themselves.
“Standing with riders,” Dorsey said, “is easier to do than committing to funding.”
Dorsey also pointed out that the decision to beef up the Riders’ Advisory Council might be the right move, given that the Metro board — with representatives handpicked by the governors of Virginia and Maryland, local leaders, the D.C. mayor, and the U.S. transportation secretary — was effectively halved when alternate members were barred from participating in meetings and holding leadership positions.
Dorsey said that those board members could be used to fill in the gaps that have developed, with fewer viewpoints, and less representation of some communities and jurisdictions.
That issue also came up at the beginning of Thursday’s meeting, when former board member Robert Lauby was brought up to receive a commendation for the two years he spent on the agency’s governance committee.
At his day job, Lauby is chief safety officer at the Federal Railroad Administration. And on the Metro board, he was by far the member with the most professional experience in rail safety issues and track infrastructure maintenance.
But Lauby was among those relegated to second-class status on the board earlier this year, when Virginia legislators promising an influx of new funding for the transit system also demanded that the board’s nonvoting members be blocked from participating in any of the panel’s meetings or discussions.
Rather than sit in the audience at every meeting, Lauby quit.
When he returned Thursday to receive his commendation, Lauby said that while his unceremonious relegation to the audience was “disappointing,” grappling with Metro’s issues was “one of the highlights of my railroad safety career.”
Others pointed out that even now, no one on the Metro board has filled the gap in knowledge and expertise that Lauby left.
“There is not a time when a safety issue comes before the board when we don’t say, ‘We wish Bob Lauby was here,’ ” Evans said.
“Even though he has been removed from the agenda,” said Phillip Posner, chair of Metro’s Accessibility Advisory Committee, “he hasn’t been removed from our hearts.”