Shortly after joining Metro's board of directors, David Horner pulled Chairman Jack Evans aside to share a candid observation during an executive session.
"I don't get it," Horner, an appointee of U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, told Evans. "You people get along — you work things out.
"I don't see any acrimony on the board that you could characterize as dysfunctional," Horner said.
Horner was perplexed, because in the five months since he joined the board, the panel's performance has been the target of intensifying attacks from numerous regional leaders and elected officials, including the governors of Virginia and Maryland.
Many would-be Metro reformers are demanding a drastic overhaul of the board as a condition for providing it with the hundreds of millions in additional funding the agency says it needs by July.
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) has included $150 million in annual dedicated funding for Metro in his final budget, but one of the conditions is that the 16-member board be scrapped and replaced by a five-member "reform" panel. It's one of the key recommendations in a report, commissioned by McAuliffe, from former U.S. transportation secretary Ray LaHood.
The proposal is contingent on Maryland and the District providing their share of dedicated funding as well.
Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) introduced legislation this month that would boost a federal grant to Metro by 50 percent, but it also would require a new five-member reform board, in addition to other changes.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) has repeatedly called for Evans to be ousted. And a bill from Maryland Democrats would increase the state's contribution to Metro by $125 million annually — provided the District and Virginia do the same. But it would require that the state's transportation secretary or another official from the department serve as one of Maryland's Metro board members.
But Horner, fellow federal appointee Steve McMillin and other members said elected officials are acting on outdated perceptions of the board.
"Maybe the jurisdictions use the board as a forum for some as proxies for whatever dispute they're having over regional funding," McMillin said. "When we're sitting down and actually debating and trying to resolve questions, the individuals work together quite well."
Members said this board is far removed from where it was two years ago, when it was undone by new appointees' disdain and distrust of leadership they viewed as ineffective. For nearly a year, bickering and turmoil on the previous board effectively paralyzed the transit agency as it struggled to deal with the fatal L'Enfant Plaza smoke incident, the hiring of a new general manager, increased federal scrutiny, numerous safety lapses and chronic service disruptions.
In interviews last week, board members from Maryland, the District, Virginia and the federal government said regional leaders' focus on governance as a primary cause of Metro's problems is misplaced compared with the larger funding and financial issues the agency faces. The agency would be better served, they say, if Hogan, McAuliffe and others focused on dedicated funding, financial reforms and labor issues.
"It's a perception left over from another era," Evans said of the view that the Metro board is an urgent problem to be solved. "It's Terry McAuliffe continuing to harp on the fact this board couldn't hire a general manager. Well, we hired Paul Wiedefeld two years ago! We. Hired. Paul. Wiedefeld. So how can people stand up and say Paul Wiedefeld is the best thing since sliced bread, and the board is terrible when we hired him and we support everything he does?"
Local business leaders as well as elected officials in Maryland and Virginia counter that years of lax oversight and financial irresponsibility led them to conclude that the 16-member board — consisting of two voting and two alternate members each from Maryland, Virginia, the District and the federal government — is mired in parochialism and overly complex. Under LaHood's plan, Chao, Hogan, McAuliffe and D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) would each appoint one board member, who would collectively select a chair.
Asked why scrapping the board is necessary, Virginia Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne said: "To give the comfort to the public, through a visible sign . . . that something has changed.
"The board did what it did — for many years, it didn't do its job. And now we're asking bonding agencies and the public to say, 'It's okay now, we're just giving it much more money,' " Layne said. "When you're asking legislators to vote, to put up more money, they're going to want to see something tangible. And I'm not saying it's fair or not fair, that's just where we are today."
Hogan spokesman Doug Mayer rejected board members' view that the panel is not the problem.
"They're the only people who believe that," he said. "It's not every single person on the board is bad. It's more that there's just too many of them. And there are some bad actors — and Jack Evans is one of them."
Hogan has repeatedly called for Evans to resign, including accusing him of "extortion tactics" after Evans threatened this fall to veto a critical Purple Line land transfer if Maryland didn't approve a committee restructuring favored by Evans. Evans argued that Maryland was "out of line" when it opposed the measure supported by the other jurisdictions. The resolution passed in October, minus a provision Maryland opposed that would have shifted the board's calendar to match Metro's fiscal year — potentially extending Evans' term by six months.
Despite state officials' reservations with the board, Maryland officials also have questioned whether LaHood's reform board proposal could be achieved without reopening Metro's governing compact, a lengthy and likely messy process officials want to avoid. Mayer said Hogan supports any board reform proposal that's "legally viable." But, Mayer added, "the fact of the matter is Metro needs money, and they need it now."
Emeka Moneme, deputy executive director of the Federal City Council, an influential business group, said governance reforms are meant to ensure the board doesn't slip back into its old ways.
"A lot of the changes on governance are 'How do you create a sustainable balance on governance that's not completely dependent on personality?' " said Moneme, whose group supports a reform board.
In a statement, Bowser's office said a reform board without dedicated funding "will not deliver safety, reliability and capacity." Bowser supports funding and governance reform concurrently.
"In the meantime, we trust the Evans-Wiedefeld leadership team will continue to make progress on restoring safety and reliability," Bowser chief of staff John Falcicchio said.
Board members say they have brought new scrutiny to Metro and supported tough decisions, including truncated service hours, service cuts and fare increases that proved unpopular with thousands of riders. Fourteen of 15 seated members approved a "Sense of the Board" proposal endorsing dedicated funding.
"I can't think of a thing [Wiedefeld has] wanted to do which we haven't supported," Evans said, "including cutting late-night hours, which was very against my political best interests."
Board members also point out that the agency has delivered clean audits in consecutive years. And Metro statistics show improving reliability. Board member Christian Dorsey, who represents Arlington County, said LaHood's five-member board would not tangibly alter Metro's course.
"For those of us who do the work, it's a facile argument — one that's extremely disappointing — for people to think that shrinking the number just to five does anything to move the agency forward," said Dorsey, who also serves on the Arlington County Board. "For anyone to say 'A-ha — I've got the solution, it's a five-member board,' it's incredibly infuriating, actually."
Board member Michael Goldman, who often clashed with Evans over such issues as late-night service, the Purple Line land transfer and the board restructuring, said the need for funding far outweighs the need for governance changes. Goldman, who joined the board in 2013 to represent Maryland, described today's board as a "quantum leap forward" from those in the past.
"It's a much more cohesive board. It's a better-functioning board," he said.
Carol Carmody, a former board member who represented the federal government, also questioned the focus on governance.
"It calls to mind the old syndrome of worrying about the size of the table and not the issues placed on it," said Carmody, who was replaced when Chao made her appointments this summer.
Evans said a board that didn't have occasional disagreements would be criticized as a "rubber stamp" for management.
Acknowledging one concern, Dorsey said officials should explore a mechanism to do away with the jurisdictional veto, which requires at least one member each from Maryland, Virginia and the District to approve a resolution before it can be enacted.
"You sort of know that as a fallback you can either force a conversation or not participate in a conversation because you've got that veto — that's really a negative incentive to regionalism," Dorsey said.
Evans acknowledges that the board is entering 2018 with uncertainty. In addition to the dueling reform proposals, two prominent officials — Hogan and Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) want him to resign. And with officer elections approaching, some board members, including Goldman and Dorsey, say it's time for a change in leadership.
The vote, typically held in January, has not been scheduled.
"The fact of the matter is that every plan out there calls for the board to be disbanded," Evans said. "So what's going to happen? Does it make sense to reorganize now if we're not going to be here next month? Or are we going to be here next month? How does a board like ours operate under that situation?"
Martine Powers and Robert McCartney contributed to this report.