An extensive research effort by the Transportation Planning Board and other groups in the Washington region over the past two years has informed a series of actions by area jurisdictions and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) that change how the transit system is governed.
The actions include adoption of the agency's first set of bylaws, an end to the customary annual rotation of its Board Chair, an agreement among the Governors of Maryland and Virginia and the Mayor of the District of Columbia to meet annually to review the performance of the system, and an effort this year by the three jurisdictions to advance similar laws setting new conditions on how Board members are selected and serve.
The first phase of the TPB's research effort came in 2010, when public and private sector leaders concerned about a decline in the performance of the Metro system formed a task force sponsored by the Greater Washington Board of Trade and the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments to review WMATA's governance arrangements and to recommend improvements. Staff at the TPB conducted a review of best practices on transit board governance and examined WMATA and other transit and public sector agencies for the task force's report, Moving Metro Forward, which was released in November 2010. The report focused on issues like the composition of the WMATA Board and the roles of its Chair, Board members, and chief executive.
Accompanying the task force's report was a separate study of WMATA's governance structure by the agency's Riders Advisory Council (RAC), which advises the Board on issues affecting Metrorail, Metrobus, and MetroAccess service.
Following the release of both reports, the WMATA Board committed to modernizing and strengthening its governance structure. As part of this effort, the Board adopted bylaws defining the responsibilities of the Board members and Chair. The Board also agreed to end the custom of rotating the Chair every year. As a result, Fairfax County Supervisor Catherine Hudgins is currently guiding the Board for the second consecutive year. WMATA also redefined its General Manager as its Chief Executive Officer, giving the person serving in the position clear authority to oversee the agency's day-to-day management.
At the same time that the WMATA Board began making its own changes to its governance structure, the Governors of Maryland and Virginia and the Mayor of the District of Columbia jointly established a Governance Work Group (GWG) to consider the recommendations of the task force and to implement improvements. The GWG asked the TPB to conduct a second phase of research, this time examining the governance practices of WMATA and 13 of its peer transit agencies around the country, among them: MTA in New York; MBTA in Boston; and, BART in San Francisco.
The TPB's Research Report for the GWG, released in June 2011, focused on what the roles and responsibilities of Board members should be, what processes should be set up to better incorporate public input into the Board's decision-making, how Board members are appointed by their respective jurisdictions, and funding needs.
The research found WMATA broadly in line with its peers except for WMATA being the only agency with indefinite terms for its members. Staff also noted that WMATA's tri-state structure adds a unique dimension to maintaining a balanced Board. Like WMATA, most agencies had Boards with a blend of elected and appointed officials. The majority of agencies had Boards with between seven and 10 members. Five agencies had a requirement that board members have specific experience relevant to governing a transit agency, and three required board members to use the transit system on a regular basis.
This year, Maryland, Virginia, and the District worked together to advance legislation they developed jointly to introduce term limits for Board members and require that members have relevant experience in such fields as transit planning, finance, or public safety. The legislation also mandates regular attendance at Board meetings and regular use of the Metrorail and Metrobus system. The Governors of Maryland and Virginia have signed their bills into law, while the legislation has been introduced in the District Council.
The three jurisdictions have also signed a Memorandum of Understanding that their transportation executives will work together to review and balance the Board's composition -- for the first time regionally coordinating their WMATA board appointments. They also committed to an annual meeting of the Governors of Maryland and Virginia and the Mayor of the District of Columbia to review WMATA's performance.
The TPB's research has made a productive contribution to how WMATA and the region's Metro system is governed, a matter which will require ongoing regional attention and coordination in the months and years ahead.