» 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.