The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) governing body is criticized as jeopardizing public safety in a recent report from the Joint WMATA Governance Review Task Force which was formed in June 2010 to make recommendations to improve the region’s public transportion through its metro system. The task force said the WMATA is declining in its performance, “as evidenced by fatal accidents, escalator and elevator outages, and unsatisfactory service reliability.” The task force also explained that “Declining public confidence in the ability of the Metro system to meet the region’s needs has become a major concern for regional leaders in both the public and private sectors.”
The Joint Task force, formed by the the Greater Washington Board of Trade (BOT) and the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) consisted of 18 current and former elected officials, government managers, and business leaders who were tasked to review the effectiveness of current governance arrangements for WMATA. They met 16 times and “received input from 47 officials, stakeholders, and experts,
including current and former WMATA Board members and General Managers. It also received public comment, reviewed scholarly articles and studies, and examined governance arrangements for WMATA and other transit and multi-state public sector organizations.”
The task force found that the governance of the WMATA, which was formed in 1966 by a compact signed by the State of Maryland, the Commonwealth of Virginia and the District of Columbia to create the public transportation (metro) system serving the region, provided inadequate accountability and was now ineffective for the needs of the transit system.
The task force concluded that “Responsibilities are not clearly delineated among WMATA’s governing entities. Board members are not selected in a coordinated process to ensure they collectively possess the right balance of attributes. The role of the Chair is not structured to provide strong leadership to the Board. The threat of using the veto and an unstable committee structure do not encourage effective decision-making. The current governance structure does not promote accountability or regional cohesion and, in a number of critical areas of governance, WMATA is out of step with the best practices employed by other leading transit authorities. Fundamental changes must be made for Metro to meet the region’s needs.”
To fix these problems, the Task Force recommends establishing a system to the authority’s governance structure and hold the Board of Director’s accountable for its performance. It recommends that the commission to make those improvements. It recommends that the Maryland and Virginia governors, the Mayor of the District of Columbia, the Washington Suburban Transit Commission Chair, the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission Chair, and the General Services Administration Administrator serve on that commission. Any changes must be approved by Congress.
The Task Force further recommends that the WMATA Governance Commission clearly define the Board’s responsibilities and set a uniform role description for Board members, Agree to and implement a coordinated process for appointing a WMATA Board with the right balance of attributes to serve metro and the region (the attributes are not set forth in the report), introduce a staggered 4-year terms with only one renewal for all Board members, develop a uniform compensation policy for all Board members (there are inconsistencies in the current arrangements). Additionally, the task force recommends that the WMATA Board immediately define the General Manager as WMATA’s Chief Executive Officer and give him or her clear authority and autonomy which is lacking in the current system. Among the other recommended changes, the task force recommends that the WMATA Board adopt a policy that all changes in committee and procedures require a majority vote of the Board and establish a formal committee structure with committees on governance, safety, and customer relations at a minimum.
Finding fault with the current compact, the task force further recommended that appointing authorities should be given “greater flexibility to select the most qualified Board members, whether they be elected or non-elected.” Other changes would be allowing each appointing authority to appoint three members instead of two with alternates. Currently, Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia each appoint two members as does the General Services Administration for a total of eight appointees. The task force recommends that one member be appointed by the Chief Executive of each signatory to the compact. Other proposed changes would be to “Enable the WMATA Governance Commission to appoint a Chair from outside the Board’s membership, agree on the compensation for the Chair, and increase the length of the Chair’s term to four years” and “Determine the appropriate role for the veto in WMATA’s decision-making process, and give serious consideration to eliminating it entirely.”
On November 23, 2010 the governors of Maryland and Virginia and the Mayor of the District of Columbia issued a joint statement supporting “in principle, the Task Force’s longer-term recommendations for eliminating the role of alternate Board members and increasing the number of primary Board members from two to three for each Appointing Authority, extending the Chair’s term length to more than one year, and exploring a more limited veto provision to more appropriately balance both system and local needs.” The three governing officers also agreed that they were “committed to working together to advance the implementation of the Task Force’s recommendations.” Each of the three has directed their respective Secretaries of Transportation to meet and “develop a comprehensive Moving Metro Forward implementation plan and schedule.” The Secretaries of Transportation are to report back in 45 days with their plan, after consulting the various agencies affected. They further pledged to “meet with Congressional members that represent WMATA’s service area since implementation of some of the recommendations would require Congressional consent and may be impacted by a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on WMATA governance commissioned by Senator Barbara Mikulski.”