Former U.S. transportation secretary Ray LaHood urged the Washington region’s top elected officials Monday to tackle Metro’s problems by appointing a temporary “reform board” of five members to replace the transit system’s existing 16-member governing body.
LaHood made his long-awaited recommendation at a regional summit at Mount Vernon. It was his first public report on work he began in March heading a panel that is trying to forge a consensus from Richmond to Annapolis on how to reform Metro and meet its funding needs. He is to make a final report in early October.
There have been numerous calls to restructure the Metro board, which has drawn criticism for years for being unwieldy and hampered by parochial fissures. Board members’ loyalties are partly to the jurisdictions they represent, while many critics say their one and only concern should be what’s best for Metro.
But both legal obstacles and political resistance could stand in the way of LaHood’s plan.
In particular, his proposal apparently depends on the three leaders suspending the terms of current board members to make way for the new board, or persuading them to voluntarily give up their seats on an emergency basis.
It wasn’t clear if McAuliffe, Hogan and Bowser have the power in all cases to make such suspensions, and whether board members would go along with the idea.
The summit made no progress on narrowing the three leaders’ differences over how to raise taxes or find additional money for Metro. General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld says the agency needs $500 million a year of additional revenue for new equipment and maintenance, or risk losing ground on safety and reliability.
Bowser said the three didn’t talk about the proposal that she and some others support for a penny-per-dollar regionwide sales tax to support Metro.
Instead, the meeting followed LaHood’s lead in focusing on the need to fix Metro’s governance before addressing funding. LaHood believes that’s necessary to improve the agency’s reputation and chances of getting support for extra money from legislators in Virginia, Maryland and Congress.
“We all agreed there are some changes in governance that need to be made,” McAuliffe said.
The current board is “somewhat dysfunctional,” Hogan said.
“I would support a smaller board,” Bowser said.
Members of the group said they all agreed that Wiedefeld is doing an excellent job. But LaHood said divisions on the board, aggravated by narrow-minded priorities, are keeping Wiedefeld from making necessary progress.
"The current board is made up of people with way too much parochialism, way too much interest in their own jurisdictions or their own particular issue," LaHood said an interview after the summit. "They're not looking at the big picture, and the big picture is, 'How do we get Metro to be the number one transit agency in the country again.' "
He proposed to establish a five-member “reform board” for three years. The District, Maryland and Virginia would each appoint one member; a fourth would be appointed by the U.S. transportation secretary. Those four would then select a chairman, who would be the fifth member.
The current board members’ terms would be suspended. That would happen either by executive action or by McAuliffe, Hogan and Bowser using what Virginia Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne called “the bully pulpit” to persuade them to step aside.
The current Metro board is composed of four members each from Maryland, Virginia, the District and the federal government. Two from each jurisdiction are voting members, and two are alternates.
Each jurisdiction picks its members in different ways, which Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn noted could be an obstacle to LaHood’s plan. Two of Maryland’s four members, for example, are picked by Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.
Rahn also noted that Maryland board members are appointed for specified terms, so it could be difficult legally to cut short their service.
LaHood deliberately did not call for restructuring the board by rewriting the Metro Compact, the document that dictates how the agency is governed and financed. Renegotiating the deal would take years, and he believes Metro must move quickly to fix its governance to win support for urgently needed increased funding.
LaHood said the new board would work with Wiedefeld to “put Metro back on good financial footing and develop a long-term maintenance plan.” It also would support Wiedefeld “renegotiating some of these legacy costs,” he said, which means trimming pension expenses and restraining other labor costs.
LaHood’s presentation also included a comparison of Metro’s overall labor costs with those of comparable transit systems. As previously reported, his team’s research found they are not out of line — thus correcting what McAuliffe called “misperceptions” in the Virginia General Assembly.
Republicans in Richmond have pressed for weakening union powers and taking other steps to rein in labor costs at the agency.
Metro’s pay and benefits “are all in line” with other systems, McAuliffe said.
LaHood mostly steered clear of the divisive question of how the region would raise the extra money that Wiedefeld says it needs starting in the fiscal year that begins July 1. While Bowser favors a regional sales tax, McAuliffe has said reforms must come first. Hogan has ruled out using state funds to support Metro but has left open the possibility that Montgomery and Prince George’s could choose to raise taxes to support it.
“I didn’t get into how people should raise the money,” LaHood said.
Although he didn’t specify a figure, he indicated that he agreed with Wiedefeld’s estimate that the agency needs an additional $500 million a year.
“Everybody knows what Paul is recommending,” LaHood said.