Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Metro Board Does Not Have Your Back

From CS:
Regular readers will recall that Unsuck has been working for nearly three years to pry vital safety and rider information out of WMATA via a series of public record requests (covering railcar doors, automatic train control, and the practice of “bellying” older and more dangerous cars in the middle of trains).

After agency staff utterly stonewalled our requests, violating their own policy and asking that we pay tens of thousands of dollars in costs for what should be public information, we recently turned to the supposed ultimate bosses, WMATA directors, for help.

We asked each of them (less one for whom we did not have an address), in their capacity as a board member with oversight responsibility for the transit system, to request from WMATA staff the same information we have sought in our requests, and then share the information with us, so that we could distribute it publicly right here.

We thought that new, highly trumpeted, reform-minded directors might seize a chance to liberate information important to riders and the capital region.

We thought at least some directors would understand that in the end, transparency really is a good thing for all concerned, and see that leveling with riders is the best course.

We hoped that among the bunch of them, at least one would be committed enough to stick their neck out and put riders first.

We were wrong.

And wrong.

And wrong.

Not a single one responded.

Never mind that no one said they’d help. We didn’t even get a single acknowledgment. Not even the pablum of, “Thank you for your concerns. We want to assure you that safety is our highest priority…” or some such thing. And keep in mind these folks are politicians – they ordinarily leap at the chance to blather about their commitment to public concerns.

Thus, it appears that the capture of the would-be reformers is now complete. Recall that after the preventable, fatal Red Line accident, a new slate of “tough” directors was supposed to keep more attentive watch over transit system operations.

But today, the WMATA echo chamber is working better than ever before. The staff tells the directors what a great job the staff is doing, and the directors chime in to sing the staff’s praises. Everyone is pleased.

During recent meetings, for example, the directors have been atwitter with praise about the new “safety culture” they say has taken hold, and the success of the rebuilding program.

Then, like clockwork, comes something like the latest derailment (an out-of-service Red Line train, as it was leaving a rail yard Saturday) or another in the series of track problems, power problems, and all manner of other problems that seem to be increasing, not decreasing, in frequency, judging by the daily service alerts.

A full discussion is for another day, but I’ve reluctantly come to believe that the only solution left is for Metro directors to be directly elected by voters in the member jurisdictions.

Otherwise, no one’s ever accountable. And the assortment of pols and other hacks, often on their way to somewhere else, that pose as “leaders” is just not up to the job of staring down Metro managers. WMATA management may not be able to run a safe, reliable transit system, but they certainly know how to take care of themselves. And management will continue to win as long as the best Metro directors can do is lay back, paws in the air, and ask for a belly rub from the staff they're supposed to command.

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