The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG) was created in 1957 when a few local leaders invited officials from the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia to a meeting where most of the attendees did not know each other. An old black-and-white photo from that meeting shows about 30 people – 29 white men and one woman – in the paneled room. When the meeting concluded, seven jurisdictions agreed to form the new council – the District of Columbia, Prince Georges and Montgomery Counties in Maryland, Arlington and Fairfax Counties in Virginia, and the cities of Alexandria and Falls Church. Much of the area outside of the District still was rural, with Virginia horse farms and Maryland tobacco farms cited as economic drivers.
Fast forward to 2023. MWCOG now counts 24 jurisdictions as members, including Charles and Frederick Counties in Maryland, and Prince William and Loudoun Counties in Virginia. More than 300 local elected and appointed officials serve on MWCOG boards and committees, and their diversity represents the changing demographics of the region. Today’s photo would be in stark contrast to that of 1957, although only about a quarter of MWCOG chairs have been women in the intervening 66 years. Six members of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors have served as MWCOG chair: three women (Anne Wilkins, Martha Pennino, Penny Gross) and three men (Fred Babson, Bob Dix, and Gerry Connolly). Kate Stewart from Montgomery County is the current chair, ending a 10-year drought for women in that leadership position.
Every summer for about 25 years, MWCOG Board members and committee chairs have conducted a retreat, an opportunity to have longer in-depth regional discussions. This year’s retreat, held on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, focused on the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) the first day and economic development and workforce on the second. WMATA, which operates the Metrorail and Metrobus system in the region, is fully 10 years younger than MWCOG, but serves many of the same jurisdictions. WMATA is an interstate compact agency, and required enabling legislation by the United States Congress, but most of the funding comes from the states and local jurisdictions. And there’s the rub: WMATA needs reliable federal funding to maintain and expand its service to the federal workforce in and around the nation’s capital. Sporadic federal grant funding simply does not solve the capital and operational needs of the system. Unfortunately, WMATA is not the only transit system facing what is called a “fiscal cliff.” New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Philadelphia, New Jersey and San Francisco all invested in regional transportation systems decades ago, but funding has not kept up with maintenance and growth.
Economic development and workforce occupied the second half of the retreat agenda. Cooperative forecasts of local jurisdictions predict growth in employment, population and households, but a tight labor market and high labor costs have made hiring and retaining talent an ongoing challenge for many businesses in Northern Virginia especially. Many local jobs require some sort of security clearance, but apprenticeships and on-the-job training can provide a pathway to success without incurring tuition costs or student debt. One of the retreat panelists pointed out that not all federal jobs require a four-year college degree. In fact, he recommended that MWCOG advocate with the federal government to change that requirement. The same panelist noted that Bureau of Labor Statistics data and definitions are at least a decade behind the market, and need updating to reflect the current job market which is changing much faster in the digital age.
The founders of MWCOG would be amazed to see the growth and diversity of today’s metropolitan region, but they were prescient about the possibilities of the region. From a “sleepy southern city with northern charm” at its center, the metropolitan area has taken its rightful place among its big competitors. The task will be to build on the successes and address current and future challenges. From the discussions at the retreat, MWCOG will be prepared to do just that.
Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor, in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be emailed at email@example.com.