As Virginia Governor Demands Seats on Metro Board, State Transit Involvement in Question

» If a state contributes its funds to the operation of a transit system, should it acquire decision-making power?

WMATA, the organization that oversees Washington’s Metro transit agency, is one of the nation’s premier providers of rail and bus services, but it faces a number of obstacles to efficient management because its operations extend across a region that comprises two states and the District of Columbia. Its sixteen-member board includes four members from each of those governments and two more from the federal government (which also has two slots yet to be filled).

Now Virginia’s Governor is hoping to shake up his state’s involvement in WMATA by adding state-appointed members.

Though the government-by-government makeup of the board is set in stone, the way each member finds his or her way into the agency’s management structure depends on each respective government. For the District of Columbia, this means two elected councilmen and two mayoral appointees; for Maryland, two appointed by the governor and two appointed based on local concerns; and for the federal government, four appointed. Virginia’s four slots are determined by the Northern Virginia Transportation Committee (NVTC), whose 20 members generally pick two representatives from heavily populated Fairfax County, one from Arlington County, and one from the cities of Alexandria, Falls Church, and Fairfax. The State has one vote on the NVTC board.

New Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell (R) has cried foul about this arrangement, arguing that his government’s contribution of a large share of WMATA’s six-year, five billion dollar capital plan should give him the right to directly appoint two of Virginia’s four board members. Local transit advocates are up in arms about this, calling it a blatantly partisan move against an organization whose board is currently entirely made up of Democrats. They also argue that local officials in Virginia pay a large share of Metro’s funds themselves and that they’re more responsive to rider needs than would be an isolated and inaccessible state appointee.

Governor McDonnell’s decision to make a big deal of the board’s makeup now, right before the federal government was supposed to chip in $1.5 billion to the system, is also wildly inappropriate timing, putting in jeopardy those Congressionally allocated funds. This could make Metro’s recent purchase of 428 new rail cars more difficult.

Local urban advocate David Alpert suggests that the fairest compromise would be to allow riders, who pay a large percentage of operating funds through fares, to vote for their own representatives.

Whether Governor McDonnell’s demand is politically motivated or appropriate, however, is beyond the broader point, which is that states are taking an increasingly important role in funding the operation and maintenance of transit systems, in the national capital region and elsewhere. Do they have a right to be involved in making decisions about transit agencies as a result? Or are state governments too isolated from the needs of riders to have authority over public transportation services, even if they’re contributing money to them?

In the abstract, it would be difficult to argue that the state of Virginia should have no say in WMATA’s organization, since Virginia’s taxpayers as a whole are contributing to its functioning after the state government made a political decision to come to its aid. On the other hand, one could argue that locally elected politicians are representing the state’s interests, if we are to assume that the state’s goals align themselves with those of localities.

But it does seem difficult to continue to push the state away from direct involvement in the management of the transit system; the federal government received four WMATA board members in exchange for its contribution — why shouldn’t the state of Virginia expect the same? Governor McDonnell’s insistence on the right to appoint two members may be poorly timed, but it’s not especially unreasonable. Indeed, there’s some merit to the idea that local governments and the state and riders all make some contribution to the board; WMATA’s decision-making should be as inclusive as possible.

7 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Mason Hicks

    I am perhaps, a little surprised by the lack of mention of the inversely related case in Georgia, and the relationship between the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) and the Georgia State Legislature. In Georgia, the case is that there is no sustained or significant support for MARTA, coming from the State of Georgia, but the State convenes its own oversight committee, called the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Overview Committee, (MARTOC). This committee is chaired by Representative Jill Chambers, who, in the universal opinion of transit advocates is nothing short of a bully. She takes great enjoyment in placing MARTA officials before committee for public pelting with her unfounded and often-times previously debunked accusations. She has no use for transit. She loves to portray herself as the guardian of the tax-payer’s dollars. However, Chambers represents Gwinnett County, a county while in the core of the twenty county Metro Atlanta region, it is NOT among the two counties, Fulton and DeKalb, (and also the City of Atlanta) that provide the transit system’s capital and operations funding through the employment of a 1% sales tax. Revenue collected from State motor-fuels taxes are constitutionally confined to being used for construction and maintenance of roads and bridges.
    In the recently-adjourned Legislative Session, after years of hard work and disappointment by transit advocacy groups like the Sierra Club and Citizens for Progressive Transit, the State Legislature finally passed a measure, to be voted on by statewide referendum; that would allow counties to band together in different regions to hold referendums, that if passed would provide an additional 1% sales tax with revenue reserved for transportation projects within their respective region. The first referendums should go to ballot in 2012. I hope that Georgia is finally looking down the right path. But there is still a long road ahead.

  • david vartanoff

    speaking as a voting victim of BART and AC Transit, be careful what you wish for. As long as the transit agency has no independent authority to raise revenue, they will be at the mercy of the government entities that do. Thus from my POV elected boards are not very important.
    I should relate that some years back when an appointed (to fill in a resignation vacancy) BART Director was running for a full term, the Contra Costa Times ran an editorial whining that the County had fewer board seats than SF although higher population. In my letter to the editor I pointed out that very few of those sprawlburb residents actually rode BART as opposed to SF residents. Current ridership stats are essentially unchanged.

    So in the case of WMATA, seems to me the representation should be by rider origins regardless of selection process. That would also exclude ANY state governor since WMATA does not serve Richmond or Annapolis.

  • Adam

    I strongly oppose this in Bob McDonnell’s case. You can bet he would find any excuse to defund WMATA and replace it with widening and building new highways.

  • Brian Smith

    This is a straight out power grab by Governor McDonnell. The fact that all of the Virginia representation is Democratic is really chafing him. Northern Virginia provides the bulk of the state’s funding for WMATA and only recovers about 20% of what it contributes to Richmond’s coffers. Promises to “fix” Northern Virginia’s transportation issues have been largely ignored. If McDonnell wants to have two seats on the Metro board, he should pony up a gas tax increase or other dedicated state funding that specifically supports Metro.

  • Portland has the situation where TriMet, despite only serving the tri-county (Multnomah/Washington/Clackamas) metropolitan area–essentially, Portland and its Oregon suburbs–has a board of directors which is appointed by, and serves at the pleasure of, the governor.

    Fortunately for Portland, Democrats have long dominated the governor’s mansion (the last Republican governors were Vic Atiyeh, a moderate, and the late Tom McCall, a progressive), so there has been little political interference in transit operations from Salem. However, when TriMet was created in 1969 from the ashes of several bankrupt private bus companies, a provision in the law permitted a future MPO to “take over” TriMet from the state should it wish to. A decade later, Metro was created.

    So far, Metro has not exercised that authority; but the TriMet board ruffled quite a few Portland-area feathers with a secretive process for replacing retiring GM Fred Hansen (a senior TriMet manager, one Neil McFarlane, was promoted to the post; he takes over the job in July). Metro (along with other municipal governments) is thoroughly miffed at not being consulted, and while it hasn’t threatened the TriMet board outright, it has on several occasions let its displeasure be known.

  • Glen

    If Governor McDonnell had shown any previous concern for public transportation in the Northern Virginia area, his move might have more credibility. His proposals to fund transportation improvements in the Commonwealth, since they avoid any tax increases, are smoke and mirrors. A proposal to sell the State’s liquor business would yield $500 million (by the Governor’s calculation which no one else can fathom). The only problem is the State would lose $100 million in annual profits that the liquor business generates (short term thinking by a term limited Governor). I could go on. In seeking the additional two seats, I’ve heard nothing from the Governor or his Secretary of Transportation on what they would do to improve transit in Northern Virginia if they got the two additional seats. So far, the Governor’s only move in Northern Virginia has been an attempt to revive the I-395 HOT lanes highway project in the face of solid opposition from Arlington, Alexandria and apparently Fairfax County. I would view with an extremely jaundiced eye any attempt by Governor McDonnell to increase his power over transit in Northern Virginia.

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