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WMATA regional task force recommends 'sweeping changes' at transit agency

November 17, 2010 - 12:28 PM
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This morning a regional task force established in June to examine Metro released a strongly worded report calling for a major overhaul of the transit agency’s governance structure.

The report, which was sponsored by the Washington Board of Trade (BOT) and the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG), said that shortcomings in Metro’s structure has led to “a serious decline in Metro’s performance,” including fatal crashes, chronic escalator outages, and unreliable service in recent years.

“What may have been an appropriate governance structure for Metro in the 1960’s is not appropriate to operate today’s mature system,” said Jim Dyke, a task force co-chair and BOT chairman. “We need to come together as a region and make the governance changes that will propel Metro to regain its stature as [a] world-class transit system.”

Among the 18-member task force’s larger recommendations was the establishment of a Metro Governance Commission that would include seven members, among them the mayor of the District of Columbia and the governors of Maryland and Virginia. By having some of the area’s highest elected officials involved in Metro, such a commission would be able to hold the transit agency’s board more accountable, task force members said.

“There’s been a steadily declining level of confidence in metro,” said BOT president James Dinegar. “That leads to less riders and less funding.”

The report also called for significant changes to board structure and proceedings, such as increasing the board size to 12 members, and giving members just a one-term renewal option on their original four-year term, holding them to a maximum of eight years on the board. Dyke said such limits would give board members “consistency but not eternity.”

“It would create enough time where you can create change but not go on forever and not get anything done,” co-chair Kwame Brown, the D.C. Council chair-elect, said. Where task force members said they would like to see more consistency is in Metro’s general manager position, which has seen four people pass through in the last five years.

The report also recommended that Metro board appointing authorities be able to select a chairman who doesn’t currently sit on the board, as well as appoint the most qualified board members possible, regardless of whether they’re elected officials.

Task force members also urged that board members’ veto powers be restricted to “extraordinary activities” since it mostly serves to “pull the board apart,” said David Robertson, executive director of COG. Robertson also said the board should consider even more basic changes, such as establishing an orientation process. “WMATA doesn’t have an effective orientation process,” he said. “You can literally be appointed to chair the WMATA board of directors never having served on the board.”

Some of the task force’s recommendations could be implemented immediately, while others would require revisions to the compact signed in 1966 that established the transit agency – a far more complicated scenario. Brown said that task force members met this morning with several Metro officials, including the general manager, and that “they were open to looking at some of the immediate opportunities.”

In preparing their report over the last four and a half months, task force members said they met 18 times and studied the “best practices” of transit systems throughout the U.S. and the world.

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