Monday, June 21, 2010
Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell's request to appoint state-level members to the WMATA Board created a lot of hoopla, most of it negative. Some local politicians call it "budgetary blackmail" because, they say, Virginia appears to be threatening to withhold $50 million in funding if it doesn't get the seats, and that would unravel agreements in place among the jurisdictions to fund Metro. Others, like the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, not exactly a McDonnell ally, think it makes "great sense" because the current Board lacks expertise and a big picture view.
We're not transportation experts, so honestly, we don't have a clear grasp of the merits or demerits of adding Virginia representatives to the Board, but we are certain that it would be impossible to make the Metro Board any worse than it is. Attend or listen to a meeting, and you'll see. Hell, just ride Metro a few times.
Admittedly, at first, we thought McDonnell's plan was, as portrayed in the local media, a Richmond power grab, but we wanted to know more about the origins of the idea, so we reached out to McDonnell's transportation secretary, Sean Connaughton to get some more information.
First of all, Connaughton knows WMATA's problems first hand and that, we think, gives him substantial credibility. We sometimes wonder if DC Metro Board member Jim Graham even takes Metro.
In a phone conversation with Unsuck, Connaughton, who used to be a regular Metro rider, recalled being at the King St. station one day when a fire broke out. It got bad enough, he said, that people on the platform were getting sick.
Connaughton said he went down to the kiosk to report the fire and was greeted with typical Metro apathy from the kiosk attendant who was chatting with a Metro police officer.
"They said 'guess we better call it in' and resumed their conversation," Connaughton said. "It was surreal."
The request for representation, Connaughton says, stems from the Commonwealth's near $130 million contribution to Metro in FY 2011, over 50 percent of the what Virginia chips in, he claims.
The number is fuzzy, as it doesn't take into account parking fees and fares paid by NOVA riders and therefore skews the percentages. But even if you discount it, Virginia does channel money to Metro. So does Maryland, and they get to appoint Board members, as does the District. Furthermore, the federal government demanded seats on the Board in exchange for its money, and that was applauded by many.
"We’re very concerned about the club atmosphere that prevails on the Board of Directors," Connaughton said. "This needs to change."
In perhaps his most interesting comment, Connaughton said there have been conversations "to look at the whole [WMATA] compact and not dabble around the edges."
Citing a string of highly critical reports on Metro's safety record and governance model, Connaughton said "the problems are just too serious, and [the Board] acts as if the situation was normal."
He said there has to be greater transparency.
"I have to make sure that when we put money into [Metro], it goes where it should go," he said. "[The Board] has a history of taking capital funding and using it for operations, for example."
Connaughton said "we never see a plan. We continue to try to figure out what they’re doing, and we can’t get a response."
Connaughton said Virginia continues to see Metro as the "lifeblood of the region," adding that Virginia led the effort to fully fund and staff the previously ineffective Tri-State Oversight Commission, which is supposed to act as a Metro watchdog, and that Virginia supported the Dulles rail extension.
When asked who the Virginia representatives to the Board might be, Connaughton said they would be full-time and transportation professionals.
Another change Connaughton would like to see is to empower general manager.
"In some ways the Board has too much control over the day to day [operations] in a negative way," he said, adding that the GM has to go to the Board too often for things like fare hikes.
If you look at how the Board hemmed and hawed about the looming huge and complex fare hikes, and WMATA's subsequent mad scramble to actually implement them in the 11th hour, you get an idea of what Connaughton is talking about.
"This is is a very complex system," he said. "It’s not the Metro of 20 years ago."
If Virginia were to appoint Board members that share Connaughton's view of the current Board, a desire to change outdated compact by which Metro is governed as well as deep concerns about Metro's litany of safety and service problems, we'd be in favor, perhaps only because the Board as is could not be worse.
Is Metro any more safe one year after crash? (Examiner)
Victim's family upset with Metro support (WTOP)
Metrobus driver charges with assault (WaPo)
Posted by Unsuck DC Metro at 7:55 AM