Support for former transportation secretary Ray LaHood’s proposed five-member Metro “reform board” has waned now that dedicated funding has been achieved, a recognition of political realities and a lack of urgency among political leaders for a comprehensive overhaul of the agency’s governance structure.
Now a coalition of business, advocacy and nonprofit groups that favors a “smaller, independent” board, has issued a proposal to reduce the Metro board to eight, effectively endorsing a provision in Virginia’s dedicated funding law that sidelines the nonvoting members on the 16-person panel.
The group, MetroNow, which includes the Federal City Council, the Greater Washington Board of Trade and the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce, among others, also outlined several changes for streamlining board business and 10 guidelines to improve the agency’s overall function.
The Metro board meanwhile, advanced a set of bylaws Thursday that would significantly reduce the role of nonvoting members by barring their participation in full meetings and executive sessions where principal members are present — steps necessary to comply with the Virginia law that takes effect July 1.
“Metro’s current governance structure needs to be reformed to create a smaller, more nimble board that is focused on outcomes for the entire system to ensure long-term durability,” MetroNow spokeswoman Clare Flannery said. “We prefer the removal of alternates and endorse the positive step being taken by the Metro Board to update its bylaws to be in alignment with the legislation passed in Virginia this year and to make alternates truly alternates as intended by the [Metro] Compact.”
Among its proposals, the group says board members should have relevant professional experience. It also calls for an end to the controversial jurisdictional veto, which allows one jurisdiction to block a measure even if it has the support of a majority of the board.
The entire package is composed of administrative and potential legal changes aimed at holding the agency more accountable now that it has secured $500 million a year in new funding from the District, Maryland and Virginia.
“How do we make sure we make good investments going forward even though we’ve committed these dollars?” asked Emeka Moneme, deputy executive director of the Federal City Council, an influential business group and founding member of MetroNow.
The group aims to restrict veto authority and would ensure that board members’ fiduciary responsibility would be to Metro by compensating them.
“Board members should possess professional experience in fields relevant to [Metro’s] fundamental functions — for example, Virginia has requirements in place that include the fields of transportation planning and/or operations, finance, management, public safety, homeland security, human resources, or the law,” Flannery said. “Board members should also possess knowledge of the region’s transportation issues and should be a regular patron of the services provided by [Metro].”
Moneme said the discussion surrounding Metro governance has changed since LaHood issued his proposal last fall.
“There was certainly a level of urgency associated with the reform board proposal and kind of a break with past practice,” he said. “We could see that proposal come back again if there were reason for it to come back. It is an extreme action — and context and situation may require extreme action, but I think the sense is elected officials felt like definitely funding [Metro] was extremely important, but extreme action was not where they were able to get to [on governance].”
Moneme said there was not enough political will for the type of changes LaHood had proposed.
“I think that’s more of a function of kind of assessing political realities,” he said. “There was little consensus to doing something that dramatic, but there was some consensus to get to the eight-member board.”
LaHood, who was tapped by then-Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) to study Metro’s financial and governance needs, defended his work in a recent interview and urged officials to act on it, saying the Virginia law’s stipulation on alternates doesn’t go far enough.
“If you look at the mess that Metro was in when we did our study, it was a mess that was created by the structure of the board, the size of the board, and we felt that in order to really give Metro a fresh start, a temporary three-year reform board would really allow for that,” LaHood said. “The purpose of the five-person reform board was new blood, new individuals, people that had as their number-one goal the overall good of the Metro system going forward.”
In addition to the board changes, MetroNow issued pleas for operational changes as part of what it called its “Accountability Platform.” It makes several recommendations, such as increasing customer confidence by creating a “chief consumer officer” position, giving the Office of the Inspector General more independence from Metro, and examining how Metro can make its bus system more competitive.
Moneme said it’s not clear how the group’s proposals would be achieved — whether through administrative or legislative action. As a first step, he said, officials are awaiting guidance from Virginia officials on the role of board alternates under the state’s dedicated funding law. The state Department of Rail and Public Transportation, the Commonwealth Transportation Board and the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission are hashing out guidelines on the powers of alternates, and are expected to issue their conclusions by July 1.
Flannery said that while the coalition ultimately supports an eight-person board, it “is up to the jurisdictions to decide the appropriate method.”
But the coalition said it intends to hold elected officials responsible for adopting the changes.
“Great work on governance is underway by elected leaders, Metro’s board, and its management,” Kim Horn, chairman of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, said in a statement. “That work is what MetroNow intends to support with the Metro Accountability Platform, and we will hold leaders accountable for taking action on the reforms and guidelines laid out here.”