METRO seems both blessed and cursed these days. The regional bus and rail system is crucial to our region’s success, but its frequent operational and safety problems can undermine public confidence and support for the 40-year-old integrated system. Is the challenge governance, operational, or a combination of factors? That’s what an 18-member Task Force appointed by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) and the Greater Washington Board of Trade (BOT) investigated during the past several months. The Task Force report was issued last week in a lively press conference at the COG offices near Union Station. I served on the Task Force as a COG representative.
METRO’s governance structure is based on a 1966 Interstate Compact signed by the Governors of Virginia and Maryland, and the then-Commissioners of the District of Columbia. Board members are appointed under a variety of entities in the region: the Governor of Maryland appoints the Maryland members and alternates; the Mayor and City Council of the District of Columbia appoint their own members and alternates; and the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission appoints the Virginia members and alternates. A 2009 amendment to the Compact added federal members to comply with a federal-regional dedicated funding agreement. METRO’s official organization name is the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, or WMATA. In familiar usage, it’s called METRO, and that is the term used in this column.
The COG/BOT Task Force met almost weekly beginning in early July, interviewed nearly 50 officials, stakeholders, and transportation experts, and issued its report on November 17. The Task Force determined that, although the governance structure was appropriate for the construction of METRO, the operational component of today’s mature system is not well served. Responsibilities are not clearly delineated; board members are not selected in a coordinated process to ensure that they have the right balance of attributes; and the Chair’s role is not structured to provide strong leadership. To address these, and other, issues, fundamental changes are necessary.
The Task Force made several recommendations that could be implemented immediately or soon thereafter. Increasing the term of the Chair from one year to two years would improve leadership stability. The METRO Board should develop an orientation process for its members, and reinstitute its annual strategic planning retreat. Board roles and responsibilities need to be clearly defined and, ultimately, staggered 4-year terms, with one renewal term, should be implemented, and alternates would revert to their original role as stated in the Compact. The Task Force also recommended that the General Manager also should be designated the Chief Executive Officer, with clear authority to oversee the day-to-day management of METRO.
To help in this effort, the Task Force recommended that a high level Governance Commission be formed to make the necessary improvements to the governance structure. The Commission would initiate changes to the Compact addressing selection and number of board members, use of the veto, and selection, compensation, and term of the Chair. When the Task Force began its review, addressing changes to the Compact was not a fait accompli, but it quickly became apparent that serious governance change would only happen by amending the Compact.
The Task Force briefed members of the Congressional delegation, the METRO Board, and the state Transportation Secretaries, and released the report on November 17. The report, entitled Moving Metro Forward, is available for download at www.mwcog.org and www.bot.org.
Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org