Monday, June 21, 2010

VA Transportation Secretary on Metro Board: This Needs to Change

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.

Other items:
Is Metro any more safe one year after crash? (Examiner)
Victim's family upset with Metro support (WTOP)
Metrobus driver charges with assault (WaPo)


Anonymous said...

I also has the same feeling that the McDonnel move was more NOVA vs rest of Virginia, but after reading this as well as other pro views, I think it makes sense and is only fair if VA has members on the board.

Like you said, it couldn't get any worse, so a shake up would be welcome

JJ in VA

Anonymous said...

How did you think the local media would represent ANYTHING done by Richmond Republicans? If McDonnell had made a motion to make the Christmas holidays last a week, the Post would have hammered him.

Chris said...

But, what does McGruff think of all this?

JUST KIDDING! ;-) Thanks for covering this... it was more information than this Virginia Metro user had before!

Anonymous said...

The real question is - Will it make any difference? I read this morning about Vento Mickens, a metro bus driver busted for a fight with a customer over a fare two days ago. Apparently being a bus driver for 23 years did not teach him self restraint and why should it? He knows/we know he'll be back anyway. So - does it help? Will it change anything? Or it is just another power-play for the power-players?

Anonymous said...

I can tell you Jim Graham doesn't take public transit. Not only that, a while ago I was waiting at a bus stop and he pulled up, parked in the bus stop, and walked off.

Anonymous said...

Excellent write up. Wish this had been given more fair play in the mainstream media.

Anonymous said...

I think this may be the first politician I've ever heard who actually relates a PERSONAL story about how screwed up Metro is.

BeyondDC said...

Of course it could get worse. Removing Zimmerman would make it worse.

Anonymous said...

"Metro... It Could Happen to You!"

Anonymous said...

Nice get, Unsuck. Wish the Post had bothered to ask Connaughton a little more about his views instead of playing right into the "club" atmosphere.

Anonymous said...

When I first heard about this, I was thrilled!! Personally, I think the entire existing board should be ousted. Maybe VA withholding funds is a back-handed move, but I applaud them for it. Why should they fund Metro if Metro won't even reveal what it is they are doing with all the money they are getting. This will be good if, for nothing else, it affords some transparency into the way money is being wasted through the ranks.

The situation with Metro has gotten out of hand and if this doesn't work, the only thing left to do is for people to stop riding (which would probably be impossible).

Anonymous said...

Connaughton most likely plans on putting Thelma Drake in the position on the Metro Board should it ever happen. She is not a transit professional.

Anonymous said...

Where are the kneejerks?!? WOW. Thought for sure they'd be screaming bloody right wing conspiracy! Goes to show you what people are willing to try given WMATA's incompetence.

Anonymous said...

Like it or not, VA has every right to demand a seat at the table.

Trevor said...

I was skeptical and angry when the story first broke, but after reading this, and some other research I did, I think it can't hurt. It's obvious a change needs to happen.

Anonymous said...

Whatever is necessary in order to get rid of that terrible criminal union.

Anonymous said...

The NoVa members currently on the board are best equipped to represent local interests. Unless we can get a Connaughton clone on the board, it's doubtful that any downstater he appoints will have a clue about the system's day-to-day operations, or how transit is supposed to integrate with a community.

J.D. Hammond said...

We're not going to get Connaughton on the board, or anyone who knows anything about Metro. If McDo has his way, we'll get Thelma Drake, a woman from Virginia Beach who has used Metro maybe once in her life.

Anonymous said...


Admittedly I am not as informed about who Connaughton's candidates would be for the spot, but as bad (often nonexistent)as NoVa transportation can be it's not like a downstater will make it any worse... There needs to be a better sense that the Art/Metro system is interconnected rather than two opposing and competing entities. It's a problem I have, as a person who does not keep a car in the District. Connaughton at least has his head in the right place, as a victim of MetroFail... Maybe we should require all of the so called 'board' members to ride Metro on a regular basis.. let them sit at a bus stop only to have an in service and empty bus fly past because the driver's not paying attention...

oh.. and that 'NoVa members are best equipped to represent local interests...' is a giant load unless the 'NoVa members frequently Metro or are in contact with the fully commuting masses.' Not everybody drives to the Metro station and hops on... it would be nice if SOMEBODY recognized that stopping bus service to/from Metro before the Metro stops is just silliness.

Anonymous said...

I don't care if an appointee is full time, local or a transportation official. I just want them to be and act like F*CKING GROWN UPS!

Anonymous said...

It will improve if and only if this representative can help gain control over an out-of-control union who thinks they can do anything without repercussions. Unfortunately, the union can, and does, exactly that.

Anonymous said...

Re: Anon Jim Graham post.

Jim Graham has no concept of the system at all. Ideally Tommy Wells would be the DC board member.

Chris said...

Metro had FIVE (that I knew of) mechanical problems between trains and track during yesterday afternoon's rush hour. It took me over 2 hours to get home. No more. I'm driving from now on. F-U, Metro.

Anonymous said...

It's hard to imagine more "clubby" than this:

William D. Euille joined the Metro Board in July 2000 as Alternate Director representing the City of Alexanria, Virginia. Mr. Euille is currently the Mayor of Alexandria, and he has served on the Alexandria City Council since May 1994. Mr. Euille is Founder/President/CEO of William D. Euille & Associates, Inc, a construction services company. In addition to serving on the Metro Board, he is President of the Virginia Transit Authority, Vice Chair of the Norther Virginia Transportation Authority, and Vice Chair of the Norther Virginia Transportation Commission.

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