Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Friday, November 26, 2010

"Random Analysis Recommendations" for restructuring the WMATA board of directors

Vienna Metro
Flickr photo by Andy961 of the Vienna Metro. This end point subway station in the middle of I-66 illustrates the dilemma of transportation and land use policy in terms of compact development and a focus on core of a metropolitan region, transit versus automobility, and suburban sprawl and exurban development.

I have to admit I haven't had a chance to read the reports issued by a Council of Governments-Greater Washington Board of Trade task force ("Moving Metro Forward") or the WMATA Riders Advisory Council ("Report on Governance of WMATA") about how to restructure governance of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA). All I know about these reports so far is what I read in the newspapers or blogs, and a comment by Jasper in the GGW blog entry "Govs, Gray hastily jump on BOT's WMATA bandwagon sums up my lack of being impressed by the proposals. Jasper said:

David, you tend to have good ideas, but these RARs (Random Acronym Recommendations) are useless because they do not address the real problem of the WMATA leadership: Lack of competence. As long as you can't demand competence from the leadership, WMATA will reflect that.

I'm taking a little liberty with Jasper's quote, changing the word acronym to analysis, because from what I read, I found the analyses wanting, even if they make some good points (but yes I will try to get to the reports).


This cross-jurisdictional board is comprised of representatives from Maryland, Virginia, and DC, and now the Federal Government as well although this is a new development. In DC the board members are appointed by the Mayor and the DC City Council. In Maryland and Virginia they are appointed in various ways, but typically the representatives come from Fairfax County, the City of Alexandria, Arlington County, Montgomery County, and Prince George's County.

There are two representatives for each seat, one is the designated voting representative and the other is an alternate. Typically, the voting representative is very active, and it can be hit or miss for the alternate. Some of the representatives are particularly good. Some suck.

All of the representatives serve on the Board of Directors in addition to whatever other career and civic responsibilities they have.

Why do the powers-that-be care?

Because of the complaints that the WMATA board tends to be very micro-managerial and because of the massive risk management oversight failures that resulted in the horrific accident that killed 9 people in June 2009, the quality and focus of the board of directors has become a significant issue. The National Transportation Safety Board report on the accident had a lot to say about the quality of board leadership.

Plus, the legislative branch appointees tend to be the dominant members of the WMATA board, and that doesn't always sit well with business interests and the executive branches of the respective governments, especially these days, Governor McDonnell of Virginia. Many stakeholders see the Task Force initiative as a way to diminish the role of elected local representatives, who theoretically are more responsive to the concerns of actual users of the system.

Board of directors issues generally

I am no expert in the organization of boards of directors (although I sit on a couple boards currently, and have in the past as well), but this has been a big issue with regard to for profit corporations for more than one decade, and there has been a great deal of federal legislation (e.g. Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002) enacted, to bring about a more engaged board for public corporations, in response to massive corporate failures and financial fraud.

There are similar issues with nonprofit boards (do a google search on David Wilmot for example, or DC's United Planning Organization), although typically nonprofit board members are not compensated, and for profit board members are compensated.

Some people argue wrt the WMATA board that most boards aren't all that engaged anyway, especially nonprofit boards, and why should they be any different.

Given that WMATA has an annual budget close to $2 billion and serves hundreds of thousands of people every day and has thousands of employees, this is a pretty ridiculous statement.

Major recommendations of the COG-GWBOT Task Force

1. Create an over board over the WMATA board currently comprised of locally appointed officials, with appointments made by the Governor of Virginia, the Governor of Maryland, and the Mayor of Washington, DC, the chief elected executive officials of each of these respective governments.

2. Have the Chair of the WMATA board be more knowledgeable and not a somewhat honorific position that turns over every year.

I don't care one way or the other about the second recommendation and the first avoids acknowledging the fact that the Governors of Maryland and Virginia and the Mayor of DC can (and often) make bad appointments too, not to mention how the quality and outlook of these positions can vary considerably depending on which party is in office, and their perspective on transit vs. automobility.

An alternative set of recommendations, hopefully not too random


Metropolitan areas typically conduct transportation policy and/or operations at five or so levels:

- Metropolitan planning organization designated by the Federal government to coordinate regional transportation planning (in the DC region this is the Transportation Policy Board of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments)

- this organization works with the state department of transportation (and thereby the U.S. Department of Transportation and other relevant federal agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency), and in cases where the MPO crosses state lines, with multiple states (the DC region is not atypical in having the MPO operate across state lines) and other designated transportation districts (such as the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission)

- the metropolitan transit authority or authorities -- in the Washington Metropolitan Area, it's not just WMATA, but also the Virginia Railway Express and Maryland Commuter Railroad which function on this level

- jurisdiction based transportation and land use planning agencies

- jurisdiction based transit operations

My presentation Metropolitan Transit Planning: Towards a Hierarchical and Conceptual Framework doesn't discuss all this, merely the need to differentiate between transportation planning and transit planning and operations, but at the same time integrate transportation and transit planning in ways better than we do now.

Ideal recommendation

That the Transportation Policy Board become the overarching transportation policy and operations entity for the region, incorporating the WMATA Board.

This isn't that crazy. In some jurisdictions, such as Minneapolis, the transit authority is operated by the MPO, although this is typically the case for smaller regions, not those with large center cities.

But the problem with this recommendation is that these boards are still made up of elected officials and some volunteers, leading to all the same problems we have now with intermittent oversight and more parochial and less regionally oriented perspectives.

"Practical" recommendations

Hopefully, these aren't any more "random" than the recommendations of the other groups.

1. Don't create the over-board.

2. Create the position of "lead directors" to professionalize the board, similar to how corporate boards have created similar positions.

3. Make these positions full-time and paid.

4. Further expand the board with a voting representative and an alternate representative appointed by the Governor of Maryland, the Governor of Virginia. And designate the voting representative as the lead director for these respective jurisdictions.

5. Have the Mayor of DC and the Federal Government convert their voting representative appointment to that of the lead director.

This will create four "lead directors" (maybe that's too many but each jurisdiction needs this level of professional leadership given the importance of transit to the region's economic health and quality of life).

6. Each jurisdiction should provide additional financial and technical support (from planning and transportation departments), as should WMATA and the MPO to the WMATA board generally and to the lead directors specifically.

7. Consider adding three additional board members, who are elected by the public, one director each for Maryland, DC, and Virginia. These positions could be full time paid positions too, functioning in part as ombudspeople for riders and stakeholders, but also as transportation planning and transit advocates.

By making these directly elected positions also full time positions, they become a form of lead directors as well, giving the riders a more direct representation than exists currently. These positions too should be provided technical and support infrastructure as well.

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