BRAC, but for WMATA station names

What’s in a name? Recently, a WMATA Board committee voted to add destinations to the Foggy Bottom and Smithsonian stations. The two will soon be “Foggy Bottom-GWU-Kennedy Center” and “Smithsonian-National Mall” stations, respectively. Matt Johnson at Greater Greater Washington has a good read on why these name additions are a bad idea and will add to rider confusion. But leaving aside the merits of WMATA’s station name policy, the inability to follow that policy is a case-study in importance of decision-making architecture.

The changes contradict WMATA policy, last considered in 2011 when there was universal agreement about problem: station names were often too long, multiple names for a single station was confusing, and the required changes in signage (updating every single map in the system) were substantial and usually understated. Yet, the Board can’t resist adding destinations to station names.

There will always be a constituency for adding a destination to a station. It speaks to the great power of a transit station to define a neighborhood. These name change requests are coming up now, in advance of the opening of Phase 2 of the Silver Line (which will require re-printing every map in the system, changing lots of signage, etc). So long as the ultimate decision about station names sits with the WMATA Board, individual Board members will always be subject to lobbying from name-based interests.

WMATA’s official policy acknowledges the problems with station name sprawl – there’s agreement about the issue, but an inability to follow through. The name policy reinforces two basic ideas, that station names should be distinct, unique, and brief:

  • Distinctive names that evoke imagery; using geographical features or centers of activity where possible
  • 19 characters maximum; preference for no more than two words.

The very idea of adding to a station name (so that station now has two names) violates both principles – the name is no longer singular, and it’s longer than necessary.

This suggests a problem in the structure of the decision-making. Changing the decision-making process could better align the outcomes with policy. The simplest solution is to simply remove the Board from the equation and let staff make all decisions. However, if that isn’t acceptable, there is another model to consider – one similar to the Department of Defense’s Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) Commission.

BRAC is a solution to a similar type of problem. Towards the end of the Cold War, there was universal agreement about the need to downsize the military and close and/or realign redundant, outdated, or unnecessary facilities. However, because of the importance of each facility locally, members of Congress would lobby hard on the DoD to keep those bases open. Any action to close bases through Congress would be subject to all sorts of legislative logrolling. The interests of individual members proved unable to meet the overall goal.

The procedural solution of the BRAC Commission was simple: form a commission to develop a list of bases to be closed, based on objective criteria all parties agree on in advance. That list of recommended closures must then be either approved or disapproved by Congress with no alterations or substitutions. Congress was willing to delegate this authority to a commission as a means of solving their own collective action problem.

One political science review of the process notes three key elements that make this delegation of power successful: agreement about the goals, agreement about the steps required to meet the goals, and a narrowly defined scope.

Imagine a BRAC-like process for WMATA station names. Agreement about WMATA’s unwieldy names, agreement on the policy to apply, and a narrow charge to an independent committee to propose changes are all in place. If I were a member of that committee, I might propose a list looking like this:

wmata station names 1-2

wmata station names 1-3

This proposal changes the names of 28 stations. The list includes stations planned (Potomac Yard) or under construction (Phase 2 of the Silver Line); it also assumes the addition of the National Mall and Kennedy Center under the ‘current’ station names.

Highlights from the proposal:

  • Dramatic reduction in the number of stations in direct violation of the character limit – from 20 to 3.
  • Sorry, local universities: you’re off the list of names. Unless a university builds a station on campus (and ‘Foggy Bottom’ is more distinctive than ‘GWU’ – sorry, Colonials), it’s hard to justify appending all of these acronyms.
  • Despite an effort to remove hyphenated names, some remain. Navy Yard-Ballpark has legit wayfinding benefits; Stadium-Armory loses the ‘stadium,’ noting that a handful of confused baseball fans still travel to the wrong station even though the Nationals haven’t played at RFK Stadium since 2007.
  • Those pesky airports: with Metro coming to IAD, it’s worthwhile to spell out ‘International’ in contrast to DCA. The proposal distills down to MWAA’s own shorthand: Reagan National and Dulles International.
  • None of the changes are re-branding efforts – all of the ‘new’ names are either part of the existing names, edited for brevity and clarity.

Imagine this proposal put forth to the WMATA Board for an up or down vote…

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