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As Transit Agency Struggles, Politically Divided Metro Board To Elect New Leader

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Metro's Board of Directors overseas the second-busiest transit agency in the country.
Metro's Board of Directors overseas the second-busiest transit agency in the country.

Metro’s board of directors is poised to elect a new chair to lead the transit system’s governing body after a tumultuous year. As 2016 unfolds, questions loom over whether the board’s various personalities and jurisdictions can reach consensus on key issues.

Some members are questioning openly whether the very structure of the board itself impedes progress, although changes would require an act of Congress and therefore do not appear to be imminent.

Current board chairman Mort Downey, a federal appointee whose career in transportation spans a half century, will not be nominated for a second one-year term after spending the better part of 2015 struggling to find a replacement for Metro General Manager Richard Sarles, who retired last January.

In November, the board settled on its third choice, Paul J. Wiedefeld, after attempts to hire Grace Crunican, chief of the Bay Area Rapid Transit in San Francisco, and aerospace executive Neal Cohen unraveled.

Who’s next?

The chair must be selected from among the eight voting members by the board’s nominating committee, which conducts its discussions in private. The eight alternate members, who do not vote, are not eligible.

There were two favorites entering 2016: D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who was chairman twice during his first stint on the WMATA board from 1991 to 2000, and Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce president James Corcoran. Both were appointed to the board last year.

But on Jan. 14 Corcoran withdrew from consideration, citing the demands of his chamber position.

“The timing is not right for Jim Corcoran as an individual to take this on at this time,” he said. “I would have done it for the benefit of the region, but as far as wanting the job for personal gain, that never entered my mind.”

Since no other board members have expressed an interest in the position or have the support of their colleagues, it would appear by process of elimination Evans will be elected to the post at Thursday’s meeting.

For his part, Evans is not publicly campaigning for the position, and he declined to comment on his chances during a wide-ranging interview about Metro’s future.

16 members is 'unwieldy'

However, Evans has opened up about what he sees as the board’s present problems and past failures, pointing to its current structure as an obstacle to resolving policy matters.

“Sixteen members is an unwieldy board. Boards that have sixteen members are fundraising boards, like the Kennedy Center. To have a real, functioning board, sixteen members are too many,” Evans said.

At issue: whether the eight alternate members should be treated the same as voting members at the public board meetings.

“This board has to decide what it is to be board members. Do the members who don’t have a vote have an equal say?” Evans said.

Maryland’s Michael Goldman, an aviation attorney appointed by then-Gov. Martin O’Malley in 2013, has called for a change to a three-member board, with D.C., Maryland, and Virginia each choosing one person to oversee Metro, eliminating federal representation. Since 2010, the federal government has appointed four board members. Congressional approval for such a change appears unlikely.

Under his plan, “They would be full-time employees of the states rather than a hodge-podge of local government officials and private citizens as I am,” Goldman said.

The “hodge-podge” is the result of each jurisdiction having its own process of picking four WMATA board members who are political appointees, some of whom lack transportation backgrounds. In fact, Downey is the only board member who has run a public transit system. He was the head of New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

The disparate representation can lead to a parochial, rather than a regional, focus, according to Jim Dinegar, the president of the Greater Washington Board of Trade and long-time Metro observer.

“Sixteen members are too many for a board of directors for a transit system like this,” Dinegar said. “The right interests to represent are regional in nature, not jurisdiction by jurisdiction by jurisdiction by federal government.”

Failed oversight?

The contention that the board is “unwieldy” touches deeper issues than whether it has too many people; current board members and outside observers say past boards failed in oversight responsibilities.

“The board seemed to not be on top of the safety issues, seemed to not be on top of the financial issues,” Evans said. “I think the board needs to exercise its oversight responsibility more so than it appears to have done in the past.”

The D.C. legislator’s frustration stems largely from Metro’s financial practices. The last two internal audits were late, for instance.

“The finances a year ago were chaotic, to say the least. Our audit was nine months late. It was late again this year. It is inexcusable,” Evans said. “We have to make sure our audit is on time, our finances are understandable, and that our systems work.”

Moreover, Metro remains on “restricted drawdown,” a penalty imposed by the Federal Transit Administration in March 2014 after a federal audit revealed Metro mishandled enormous sums allocated for rebuilding projects in 2012-13. The restriction has squeezed Metro’s ability to quickly receive federal funds for capital projects, leading to the need for short-term borrowing.

The audit’s findings left the board stunned.

“So was the general manager [Richard Sarles],” said Tom Downs, who was the board chair at the time.

Asked if the board should have caught the financial management problems, Downs responded, “Three years before that audit, there had been another [federal] review, and it found no significant issues on the financial management side of [Metro].”

“There were three previous independent, outside audits of all of the authority’s books and…none of those issues were raised,” he added.

Three weeks after the audit’s findings went public, Metro’s chief financial officer Carol Kissal announced she was resigning from her position to take an undisclosed job in the private sector.

“There was less than candid disclosure from the professional staff and the finance operation,” Downs said. “It should have been a matter of public record and accountability. It was not.”

David Alpert, the founder of the influential pro-public transit blog Greater Greater Washington, said the board leadership may have failed to ask the right questions that might have shed light on the financial bungling before it resulted in punishment.

“The board should have been able to ferret out things like that,” Alpert said. “Maybe they didn’t have people with expertise to say hold on, something seems to be wrong.”

“I think the board has definitely dropped the ball on a number of oversight issues. Safety being the other one,” he added.

Last summer, the FTA issued another report, this time uncovering scores of safety problems within Metro’s bus and rail operations.

Then in September, in a sign the board would begin asserting itself in safety matters, members of D.C.'s contingent effectively forced the resignation of Metro's chief safety officer, James Dougherty.

Corbett Price, a businessman tapped by Mayor Muriel Bowser, and DDOT director Leif Dormsjo publicly excoriated Dougherty in a Sept. 3 board meeting in the aftermath of the derailment of an empty train near Smithsonian station.

Dormsjo accused Metro management of a "bunker mentality" when it comes to following outside expertise and he publicly questioned Dougherty's competence. Price said he had "absolutely no confidence" in the safety office after an investigation determined a combination of human error and the absence of internal checks led to the derailment.

Political fracturing

Last October what appeared to be a routine vote to fund employees’ post-retirement health benefits turned into a political blowup between D.C. and Maryland, leading to unusual public criticisms from each side.

Maryland’s voting members, Michael Goldman and Keturah Harley, exercised their jurisdictional veto to block a proposal to fund a retirement trust. The vote was 6-2 in favor of funding, but the veto overrode the majority. It was the first use of the jurisdictional veto in years.

“When they issued that veto, it sent a shock wave through the governance of Metro, and it will be a while until we recover from that shockwave,” said Dinegar, who said it raised the possibility other jurisdictions could retaliate in the future, impeding board business.

“If every jurisdiction is going to use that as their own U.S. Senate filibuster-type of situation, you could really get gridlock,” said Greater Greater Washington’s Alpert.

“And we definitely got gridlock,” Alpert said, pointing to the divisions that dragged out the search for a new general manager through most of 2015. The search got off to a shaky start, Dinegar said, because the Metro board lacked a succession plan when Sarles retired.

In February, board chairman Mort Downey had his pick in place. It was San Francisco transit boss Grace Crunican, with whom he had worked at the Department of Transportation. However, Maryland’s Michael Goldman objected because of what he viewed as Crunican’s questionable safety record running the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART).

Crunican was never hired and then District officials pressured Downey to cancel the search and broaden the job description to include candidates with financial and/or organizational turn-around expertise. Virginia leaders continued to favor a traditional transit specialist.

In early November, the board stumbled again in an attempt to replace for Sarles. Then Downey reached out to Wiedefeld, who took the job.

“There should have been an approach that was sound. The fits and starts did not reflect well on the governance of Metro,” said Dinegar.

Too much dissent?

Although he has called for a major restructuring of the very board he sits on, Michael Goldman is not bothered by the sixteen members’ frequent battles, whether they are fighting over the best use of new railcars, the 5A bus route to Dulles Airport (which Maryland objected to funding), or funding retirement benefits.

“We come from different political and philosophical bases and we have different objectives,” said Goldman of the four competing jurisdictions. “Some give and take between them is expected. We shouldn’t all be of the same mind. Some debate and some controversy is good sometimes.”

Virginia’s James Corcoran also disputes the notion the board of directors is divided to a fault.

“There are issues that can cause frictions between the jurisdictions, but overall the individual members of the board have a lot of respect for each other and do work together,” he said.

“Having [the alternate members] there to hear what is going on is, in my opinion, not a bad idea because they can actually perform work on behalf of the board,” he added.

Downs, on the other hand, sees the board’s public disagreements as the result of a larger problem that reflects poorly on the region’s leaders.

Transportation Secretary Foxx called together Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland, Gov. Terry McAuliffe of Virginia and D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser to convince the three executives to meet regularly to discuss Metro issues.

“All three of them promised that they would do so. They have not met as far as I know to this day. If they cannot meet, the messages the board gets are very mixed,” Downs said.

Although the two governors and mayor have not met, their respective transportation chiefs have held two meetings about Metro safety issues.

The hiring of Wiedefeld should allow the board to withdraw from its recent public assertiveness, Dinegar said, and let the new general manager become the public face of the agency.

“Everybody needs to take a good fresh look at the governance approach within Metro, so that there is a clear, bright line of authority of who does what,” he said.

Creating a 'hodge-podge'

The jurisdictions have very different ways of picking board members.

The federal appointees were tapped by the General Services Administration. But Congress shifted the appointment power to the U.S. Department of Transportation last year, citing the need to select people with extensive transportation backgrounds.

It is unclear when Secretary Anthony Foxx will begin exercising this new authority and possibly replace some or all of the four federal board members.

"The U.S. DOT is working… [toward] exercising its authority to appoint WMATA board directors who further the Department's mission of safe, reliable, and efficient transport,” according to a statement by a department spokeswoman.

In Maryland, the governor selects the two voting members and the Prince George’s and Montgomery county executives each pick one of the alternates.

In the District of Columbia, the D.C. Council must approve each of the four WMATA board picks. The mayor nominates two. The other two are nominated by the Council.

In Virginia, local jurisdictions mostly lead the way. All four WMATA board appointees must first become members of the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission (NVTC) and regularly use Metro’s rail or bus system. With one exception, they must all be locally elected officials.

Fairfax and Arlington Counties and Alexandria each send one of their elected officials to the Metro board. The fourth board member is officially nominated by the state secretary of transportation, but in reality is picked by the governor.

Looking ahead

Safety and reliability must be Metro’s priority if the transit authority is to regain lost riders and win back the public’s confidence, Evans said.

“The board needs to take a very active role in overseeing the general manager and his staff in making sure Metro is safe,” he said.

Evans says he and his D.C. Council staff “were in Foggy Bottom the other day at a community meeting to talk about issues affecting the neighbors." He added, "Of the 15 questions, 13 were Metro. Not crime. Not homelessness. Not anything but Metro."

Outgoing chair Downey, when asked who he believes should be the board’s next leader, declined to name any names, then added jokingly, “Maybe Donald Trump will decide to throw his name in.”


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