As two finances-focused Trump appointees took their seats on the Metro Board on Thursday, members of Metro’s largest union urged them to engage with riders and workers to improve the system — and to make their intentions for the transit agency clear.
The new members, Steve McMillin and David Horner, had just been sworn into office when members of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 launched into speeches addressing them directly, blaming the board for Metro’s troubled situation, and pressing for changes to the way the governing panel operates.
Their remarks came amid concerns that the Trump appointees would seek to privatize aspects of Metro service and reduce funding for the transit agency, though neither the appointees nor the administration have articulated positions specific to Metro. McMillin has outlined finances as an area of focus — particularly whether Metro needs a $150 million annual federal grant that expires after 2018, as Congress weighs whether to renew it.
“We know that you have your marching orders from the current administration,” said John Wynters, a union member who works in rail car maintenance. “But we ask you to be open and honest about your intentions so that the public can have an opportunity to voice its concerns. The board has done enough backdoor deals and selling out of riders and workers. We challenge you to do it differently.”
The union’s criticism came after a year of austerity measures, on which workers believe their input was ignored. Before workers’ remarks, the union distributed a flyer blaming Board Chairman Jack Evans for Metro’s response to a litany of financial, safety and reliability issues: increasing fares, reducing rail service, slashing and modifying some bus routes and reducing weekend late-night service.
The union also urged against the proposed privatization of services, such as the second phase of Metro’s Silver Line. Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld has said he would consider contracting out jobs for station managers and track inspectors in that part of the system, which would extend through Dulles Airport to Ashburn, Va.
“To our new board members, and the senior members as well, if you are here to privatize Metro and put the profits of a private company ahead of the safety, reliability and affordability of Metro, then say so!” said Tracy Smith, a bus operator and union shop steward. “At least that way the public will know who they are up against.”
Horner is an attorney who specializes in public-private partnerships, while McMillin is a partner at the economic and public policy research firm U.S. Policy Metrics. Both abstained from voting on policy matters Thursday after being sworn in by Evans.
McMillin has said that while safety will remain a priority — the two new voting appointees replace a pair of transportation safety experts — he plans to turn his attention to the financial state of the system. Metro faced a $290 million operating shortfall in the months leading up to the current fiscal year, prompting the reduction in rail service and the increased fares, among other measures.
“Mr. Horner and Mr. McMillin, the workers and riders of Metro deserve better than a board that listens to no one, makes poor decisions without adequate research, and deliberately chooses to take Metro in the wrong direction,” Smith said. “Mr. Horner and Mr. McMillin, we are here today to ask you to do it differently … Be honest with the public and drive Metro forward.”
Another speaker, Zuri Tesheira, who works in heating, ventilation and air-conditioning maintenance, said that while he accepted that the board members have been charged with carrying out the positions of the Trump administration, he hoped any such stances will be made immediately clear.
“This is why we come to you with one simple expectation: be honest with your workforce and with the public,” he said.
Asked about how he would address the concerns and fears raised by union members at the meeting, Horner said he’s committed to listening and engaging in discussion and negotiations during his first few months in the role.
“How would I handle some of the union’s concerns? By deliberating with my board colleagues about the issues they have brought to our attention,” Horner said after the board meeting, “and by applying best practices to the operation of this transit agency to the benefit of this ridership and the region.”
But some members of the Metro Board have concerns about what the new members’ likely financial focus would mean for other issues. Their predecessors, Carol Carmody and David Strickland, were both veterans of federal transportation safety agencies; another outgoing board member, Leif Dormsjo, directed the District Department of Transportation and was deputy secretary of the Maryland Department of Transportation.
After the meeting, Evans acknowledged that Horner and McMillin weren’t experts on safety issues, but demurred on whether those differences channeled intentions from the Trump administration to crack down on spending at Metro.
“They’re finance guys. They’re not safety guys,” Evans said of Horner and McMillin. “I don’t know if there’s a message there or not.”
But, he said, that difference might be a good thing in a year when Metro is seeking to prove worthy of a regional-dedicated revenue source to help fund long-term capital repairs on the system.
“We are in a pivotal time at Metro — the most pivotal time we’ve been in since Metro was started,” Evans said, speaking of the potential for a gaping monetary shortfall in next year’s budget. “So having financial experts on the board is, I think, a good thing.”
Martine Powers contributed to this report.