The Metro board intends to dissolve its Riders' Advisory Council next month, cutting ties with its rider liaison group at a time when the agency’s staff is prioritizing its online survey community, Amplify.
The decision comes months after the panel said unequivocally it had no intention of dissolving the group, which consists of up to 21 members of the riding community and reports directly to the board.
Katherine Kortum, chair of the Riders' Advisory Council, was informed of the board’s decision Wednesday, though it remains subject to an October vote. The move comes after members spent hours providing feedback to the board as it conducted an operational review of the council’s structure, with an eye toward streamlining and maximizing its effectiveness. In the past few years, the council has been vocal on a range of issues from Metro’s late-night service cuts, to Blue Line crowding, to fare increases. It has at times, however, also been beset by a lack of participant interest and support from Metro.
It was among the most vocal advocates for the 15-minute grace period Metro instituted on station entries and exits in 2016.
On Wednesday, Kortum and her Maryland vice chair, Bob Fogel, spoke on the phone with board member Christian Dorsey, who led the review and told them the rider council would be eliminated. Dorsey said the advocates for keeping the RAC consisted largely of alternate board members, who lost their ability to participate in board meetings under Metro’s new dedicated funding law. With the board shrunk in half, there was little will to keep the group in operation, he said.
“I don’t know if surprised or disappointed is the right term,” Kortum said. “Given that we were given verbal assurances that the RAC was sticking around, this is disappointing.”
Indeed, board members had pledged they were working to improve the Riders' Advisory Council — formed in 2005 as a rider advocacy body to the board — not eliminate it. As one Metro observer, @MetroReasons, pointed out, Dorsey had said in March: “There is no desire to dissolve the RAC. Period, full stop.”
“I voiced my sentiments in good faith,” Dorsey said. “That was my understanding then. As the board changed, so did the expectations of some of the other members.”
Metro board Chairman Jack Evans had previously gone further than Dorsey in his pledge to keep the group running.
“Emphatically . . . there is no attempt to get rid of the RAC,” he said then. “It’s here. It stays.”
On Wednesday, Evans struck a markedly different tone, although he denied that the rider advocate was being lost in its entirety. The council’s duties were shifting to Amplify, the staff survey program — an “opt-in” online community where users can provide feedback on the Metro experience.
“What the RAC does is provide Metro with opinions of the riders,” Evans said. “This is what [Metro’s] larger outreach group does as well. And so it doesn’t make sense to have two separate groups doing that.”
He said the decision represents a move toward more rider input, not less.
“The RAC exists because the social media didn’t exist back in the day,” Evans said. “We’re moving ahead with bringing them into the future so to speak.”
Would its 11 remaining members be retained and brought on in a separate roles? he was asked.
No, he said. Dorsey said those members would be asked to apply for Amplify, however.
“Certainly I’ve heard sentiment of people not understanding what utility the RAC has,” Dorsey said, “whether modern forms of engagement are more efficient were better. I’ve also heard people concerned about whether the RAC just truly performed its service of advising the board in any meaningful way.”
Kortum said RAC members worked diligently to provide suggestions over the course of the six-month review. They recommended shrinking the panel to 18 members, including riders of various customer demographics, such as a representative who only uses the bus, or someone who only rides off-peak or late at night. They were not under the impression the group would be eliminated. Kortum found the conclusion insulting, saying “That’s probably a reasonable word to use.”
Colin Reusch, another vocal member of the panel, said the board’s decision sends a signal to customers as the agency struggles with shrinking ridership.
“Beyond the obvious loss of some officially sanctioned rider representation and liaison to the board, I think Metro is likely to lose additional credibility in the eyes of the public,” he said. “Riders' perception of the agency remains low, not only because of reliability issues and frequency of service, but also because there’s a general lack of transparency. The dissolution of the RAC only serves to reinforce that distrust and eliminates one of the few mechanisms for riders to voice their concerns and get information about the agency’s policies from people who represent them.”
Metro declined to comment on the RAC’s dissolution, saying it was a board matter.