Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Metro Riders' Advisory Council: All for Show

From Metro:
On September 25, 2005, Metro's Board of Directors established a Riders' Advisory Council. The Council advises the Board on issues affecting Metrobus, Metrorail and MetroAccess service.
From Chris:
November 7, 2011

Catherine Hudgins
Board of Directors
Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority
Washington, D.C.

Dear Chair Hudgins:

When you nominated me as a Virginia representative to the Riders’ Advisory Council (RAC) of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), I looked forward to advocating for rider interests with an agency sorely in need of transparency and reform. Unfortunately, recent events demonstrate that the RAC has lost the independence necessary to be credible with its rider constituency. As a result, I must respectfully resign.

The issue here is independent access by the RAC to crucial Metro information. As you know, in my capacity as a RAC member, I recently submitted requests for information in two vital areas: Metrorail on-time performance data, and efforts to restore automatic train control, which has been suspended since the fatal Red Line accident. In the case of on-time data, many riders, myself included, do not understand how Metro’s official, upbeat reports of its on-time performance match the reality of the poor performance we see daily on the platform. As for train control, return to automatic control is likely the single biggest factor for restoring system performance, which has deteriorated so markedly in recent years. Yet WMATA management has made only limited, conflicting statements about automatic control since the accident. Taken together, these two issues affect every Metrorail rider, every day, and thus they are of vital rider interest.

My requests followed adoption earlier this year of WMATA bylaw amendments where you and fellow directors declared that “[t]he Board recognizes the value of the RAC having access to WMATA information and encourages WMATA staff to assist the RAC by providing such information[.]” Thus, I was hopeful the new policy would spur more transparency in an organization noted for its failure to be forthcoming to the public.

This, however, was not to be. WMATA staff declined to provide any information in response to my requests, after which the matter passed to you and the general manager for consideration. In an e-mail October 27, my two requests were denied in their entirety. I believe the denials were capricious, contrived, and unreasonable.

These developments effectively kill RAC independence. They show, notwithstanding the board’s purported support for RAC access to information, that the RAC’s ability to carry out its functions depends on the vagary of WMATA leadership. If a topic is judged safe or innocuous, Metro may well decide to provide information. For anything more substantive, it is not clear that any information will be provided. In this case, it was not.

I’m afraid that I cannot, in good conscience, serve on the RAC with its independence so restricted. It is not possible to reconcile the RAC’s stated mission with the refusal to provide information that is clearly in riders’ interest. By way of comparison, for example, imagine if the WMATA board, or the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, had the broad mandates to govern that they do, but with vital areas of information being summarily ruled off limits – and without ever knowing in advance what those forbidden areas would be. Obviously, that would be unacceptable.

Thus, with the RAC having become a captive to the agency, I must resign, effective immediately.

I also note the disappointing performance of the RAC itself on the issue of seeking information on behalf of riders. Most notably, for example, when the bylaw changes noted above were being deliberated, the RAC acquiesced, voting down a request to object, to a WMATA staff amendment that sharply narrowed the scope of information potentially available to the RAC. That change put the RAC – WMATA’s official riders’ representative – on a footing no better than the general public. (WMATA, of course, has a long history of frustrating public requests for information.) Also, when my information requests cited above were recently denied, the RAC voted, 14-2, against appealing the denial to the full WMATA board.

Regrettably, the RAC has contented itself with being a passive receipient of what information WMATA is willing to share. To my disappointment, the RAC has shown no willingness, in my year on the council, to proactively seek meaningful information important to riders that goes beyond what WMATA chooses to provide.

Taken together, the denial of the information requests, the resultant loss of the RAC’s independence, and the unwillingness of the RAC to defend its own interests mean that there is no institution within Metro dedicated to transparency and aggressive pursuit of information that is of significant rider interest.

I thank you for providing me the opportunity to serve on the RAC, and I sincerely regret the need to step aside now before my term is complete. Despite some limited improvement, Metro remains a deeply troubled agency, rife with problems that demand accountability and transparency, and which are too numerous to enumerate here. I hope that in the future, a greater dedication to meaningful information access will develop. This would be a starting point for necessary reforms, as well as for establishing the RAC as an independent, robust voice on behalf of riders.

Respectfully yours,

Christopher Schmitt
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