The fight is over: Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell gets to appoint one of Virginia’s two voting representatives to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority board. To secure this power, McDonnell had threatened to withhold funding Metro needs to repair its aging system. In the end, the governor won a political victory against Northern Virginia officials. But the question remains: Will riders be better off?
We’ll find out when lawyer James Dyke, McDonnell’s pick for the board, takes his seat in January. To make room for Dyke, Arlington’s voting representative, Mary Hynes, will likely be demoted to an alternate, and one of the alternates, probably Jeff McKay of Fairfax County, will lose his seat.
Will this change lead to better Metro operations? A better experience for riders? Will it ease the strain on state and local budgets? Honestly, I’m skeptical, but I’m willing to wait and see. Here are the two most important things that I’ll be watching for:
■Will the top dog get more involved?
There’s no doubt Dyke cares about Metro. He rides it a lot, and he has made it clear he believes Metro is an asset to our region.
But Dyke’s power is limited. He doesn’t have the ability to affect a local budget, the way Hynes (a member of the Arlington County Board) and McKay (who is on the Fairfax Board of Supervisors) can. Ultimately, Northern Virginia taxpayers cover 70 percent of the state’s contributions to Metro. When the WMATA board is facing the possibility of higher fares or service cutbacks, Dyke can’t use a position as a local elected official to push for additional resources.
Nonetheless, Dyke’s involvement could bring a meaningful benefit if it means McDonnell starts paying attention to Metro. In November, The Post’s Robert McCartney endorsed a stepped-up role for McDonnell, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray because it could “get the top dogs more involved.” Since then, McDonnell has shown intense interest in how much power he has over Metro but has done fairly little otherwise; his transportation secretary, Sean Connaughton, has said that the state had little interest in contributing more for the Silver Line, even if Fairfax, Loudoun and the federal government do so.
Does anyone know what McDonnell or his staff think Metro should do to improve safety? Customer service? Operational efficiency? Doubtful, since they haven’t said much. If Dyke’s service on the board draws McDonnell and the state government more closely into Metro issues, it could mean a lot. If McDonnell starts to think of Metro more as something he needs to factor into his budget rather than ignore, Virginians will benefit. But if Dyke just speaks for himself, it won’t be a much of a win for Northern Virginia.
■ Will Dyke listen to riders?
A lot of people in this region have strong opinions about Metro. Northern Virginia’s board members have been some of the best at listening to riders, perhaps because they are elected officials and have to answer to the voters every few years.
Dyke won’t have to do that. That doesn’t mean he can’t still listen to riders, and he should. But last year, Dyke co-chaired a task force studying of Metro governance that was originally sold to local governments as an open, participatory process but that quickly disappeared behind closed doors. At the task force’s sole meeting open to public comment, Dyke brusquely cut off resident after resident.
Will the Jim Dyke of the WMATA board resemble that Jim Dyke, or will he embrace public participation now that he will hold a public position? Riders should care a great deal, because it will help determine whether Metro moves toward addressing public concerns or making the agency even more insular.
Notably, Maryland’s governor appoints both of that state’s voting members of the board. Can we draw conclusions from them? Some, though a few aspects are different. Maryland pays all of the state’s Metro costs and, perhaps because of that, the governor and his transportation officials have been much more involved in Metro than their Virginia counterparts. But Maryland residents enjoy far less contact with their board members than Virginia or D.C. residents do, giving Virginians reason to worry about this change.
Robert McDonnell fought hard to get this new power. He claims his motive is to improve Metro. His involvement, and the way his appointee treats the people of Virginia, will tell us whether this is true. I genuinely hope it is. There’s too much at stake for Metro to be sidetracked by political power plays.
The writer, the founder and editor of the blog Greater Greater Washington, serves on WMATA’s Riders Advisory Council. He participates in The Post’s Local Blog Network.