It’s not easy to do two things at once. Particularly when you have two very different tasks, one might get more attention than the other – or the goals for each might blur together in your mind.
Keeping these tasks distinct is a challenge. Jarrett Walker often speaks about the distinction between transit systems that focus on providing coverage vs. maximizing ridership, and the importance of thinking clearly about the two goals.
The current public dispute among WMATA’s Board of Directors about the preferred qualifications for a new general manager exposes a similar rift – with some members preferring to focus on a seasoned public transit executive (an operator), and others looking for a business-oriented financial turnaround manager.
As a transit agency, WMATA has to fill several disparate roles (thus the search for a single leader with super-human capabilities):
- Operate regional and local bus transit, as well as the regional Metrorail system
- Coordinate regional transit planning
- Provide a regional transit funding mechanism
The latter two tasks (planning and funding) can be somewhat grouped together. WMATA’s Board of Directors is therefore charged with two rather disparate tasks: to oversee the day-to-day management and operations of a large regional rail and bus system; and to coordinate and fund that system across three state-level jurisdictions.
These disparate roles present plenty of challenges for WMATA’s leadership – just look at this list of tasks facing WMATA’s future GM, ranging from safely operating the system to uniting the region. Piece of cake – anybody can do that! Super heroes need not apply.
Absent any regional government, the WMATA Board has no choice but to act as a proxy for a regional legislature. While state-level governments might be anachronisms, they’re also not going to disappear anytime soon. Twitter-based WMATA reformers will call for ‘blowing up the compact’ and replacing it with… something. Aside from the Federal government, an inter-state compact is the only form of cross-border regionalism we have available to us. Others call for direct election of Metro board members. It’s an intriguing idea – BART’s board members are elected – but BART only operates a regional rail system. There’s only one elected regional government in the US, and it is wholly contained within a single state.
The medium-term fiscal outlook for WMATA shows an unsustainable trend of rising costs and stagnant ridership and revenues. These trends have stressed the agency’s business model, which requires member jurisdictions to pitch in to cover the annual operating subsidies.
However, the most recent breakdowns in WMATA’s reliability demand greater oversight on the agency’s primary task: safe and efficient operation of the regional transit system.
Instead of arguing about the preferred qualifications for a general manager, this dispute should open the door for a broader conversation about the system’s governance and how it can best tackle the different tasks as a transit operator and as a regional governing body.
During WMATA’s last crisis and most recent round of governance reform proposals following the 2009 Red Line crash, David Alpert hit on the challenges of the different roles for the WMATA Board. Given the different needs, David went so far as to suggest two separate boards for WMATA. Too many reform proposals seemed to talk past the different tasks required of the agency’s leadership – operational oversight and regional coordination.
The idea isn’t unprecedented. For example, in Paris, the Syndicat des transports d’Île-de-France (STIF) is the regional entity that coordinates planning, funding, and operation of transit in the region, and oversees the performance of the various transit operators it contracts with.
STIF negotiates with operators, holding them to performance-based contracts. In Paris, there are two primary rail operators – RATP, operating the Paris Metro, and SNCF, operating most of the RER and suburban trains. STIF also contracts with various bus operators.
The European Union issued mandates for how transportation companies must organize themselves, but the arm’s-length contracting between the regional planning body/coordinator and the local operators pre-dates these EU models. While these mandates for privatization and separation of operations from infrastructure are intertwined with this governance model, they remain a separate issue.
The idea of keeping operations and regional funding/planning at arm’s length seems to help sharpen the focus on accountability. It remains to be seen if the competitive tendering of contracts between transport associations and operators results in meaningful competition – after all, these kinds of systems are natural monopolies. But these contracts do indeed codify the relationships between the regional governance system and the operator, opening the door for maintaining accountability.
In these examples, the governance structure helps provide clarity about the roles and responsibilities for each participant in the system.