Metro board shows even a tran­sit sys­tem can ex­pe­ri­ence grid­lock

The Washington Post Sunday - - COMMUTER - Dr. Grid­lock also ap­pears Thurs­day in Lo­cal Living. Com­ments and ques­tions are wel­come and may be used in a col­umn, along with the writer’s name and home com­mu­nity. Write Dr. Grid­lock at The Wash­ing­ton Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Wash­ing­ton, D.C. 20071, or e-

Enough al­ready, Metro. Pick a new boss.

It was fine to pause and re­flect on the char­ac­ter­is­tics of the ideal gen­eral manager and to con­sider what the tran­sit author­ity needs to fix. But it’s ap­proach­ing half a year since Richard Sar­les re­tired as gen­eral manager.

This is no longer a pause. It’s get­ting to be more like an ope­nended mora­to­rium.

And it doesn’t in­spire con­fi­dence.

On Tues­day, Vir­ginia Trans­porta­tion Sec­re­tary Aubrey Layne sent a “Let’s go!” let­ter to the Metro board’s chair­man, Mor­timer Downey.

In an in­ter­view Thurs­day, Layne put the mat­ter more bluntly: “Rome is burning.” The tran­sit sys­tem may not be in quite the same state of cri­sis as the im­pe­rial cap­i­tal in A.D. 64, but his al­lu­sion to fid­dling at the top is on tar­get.

“If you sense frus­tra­tion, you’re right,” Layne said.

Gov­ern­ments of­ten go through tran­si­tions in lead­er­ship. But D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D), Mary­land Gov. Larry Ho­gan (R) and Vir­ginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) didn’t need six months to re­think the mission of their trans­porta­tion de­part­ments be­fore ap­point­ing new peo­ple to run them.

Fed­eral and re­gional lead­ers share re­spon­si­bil­ity for this pe­cu­liar form of grid­lock, be­cause they ap­point the board mem­bers. Metro’s gov­er­nance struc­ture also is part of the prob­lem. It’s less like a lo­cal trans­porta­tion depart­ment and more like the U.N. Se­cu­rity Coun­cil, in­clud­ing the veto power.

Our sit­u­a­tion may be more con­tained than the morass in Mas­sachusetts over re­or­ga­niz­ing the Bos­ton T sub­way ser­vice. But that’s not much com­fort, since we still don’t know whether Metro has hit bot­tom on its op­er­a­tional and fi­nan­cial prob­lems.

Late this month, we’ll learn more about the Jan­uary tragedy in the smoke-filled Yel­low Line tun­nel when the Na­tional Trans­porta­tion Safety Board holds two days of hear­ings.

Yes, Metro is un­der­funded when it comes to achiev­ing the level of per­for­mance we want in a tran­sit sys­tem. Just hav­ing all those new rail cars on the tracks would do a lot more for Metro­rail’s re­li­a­bil­ity than any manager could.

But the cur­rent state of Metro isn’t all about fund­ing. It isn’t all about hav­ing ev­ery board mem­ber in sync on ex­actly what steps should come next to se­cure the author­ity’s fi­nances and ser­vice plans — nice as that would be.

Layne makes the point that Metro board mem­bers can de­velop all the the­o­ries they want about the tran­sit author­ity’s next steps for re­form and about the qual­i­ties of the ideal leader. But noth­ing subs for hav­ing a per­ma­nent leader in place to start con­vert­ing the­o­ries into prac­tice through day-to-day de­ci­sions.

It’s “not very glam­orous,” Layne said. “It’s run­ning the dog­gone busi­ness.” And that’s about de­liv­er­ing a prod­uct on a daily ba­sis. “Metro needs to be run like any other com­pany.”

In this case, the cus­tomers need to see the el­e­va­tors work­ing and the trains func­tion­ing. “They shouldn’t have dirty cars. They shouldn’t worry about smoke in the tun­nel,” he said.

Get the leader in place, achiev­ing some ba­sic goals, and it be­comes eas­ier to make the case that the tran­sit sys­tem needs the fund­ing to take us through the next sev­eral decades of ser­vice chal­lenges.

Dur­ing the past two weeks, I at­tended sev­eral of the public hear­ings on Vir­ginia’s plan to rebuild 25 miles of In­ter­state 66. Many speak­ers, dis­sat­is­fied with the state’s pro­posal to build high­oc­cu­pancy toll lanes, urged of­fi­cials to con­sider an Or­ange Line ex­ten­sion as an al­ter­na­tive.

That just isn’t go­ing to hap­pen in time to be of help to to­day’s gen­er­a­tion of com­muters. It’s partly about the bil­lions of dol­lars that such an ex­ten­sion would cost. It’s partly about the im­prac­ti­cal­ity of run­ning an ur­ban sub­way sys­tem through less densely pop­u­lated parts of the re­gion.

And it’s partly about the in­creas­ingly ob­vi­ous need to fix the tran­sit sys­tem we al­ready have. To­day’s is­sues about tran­sit ser­vice and fi­nanc­ing will get re­solved. But it’s time for the Metro board to get a move on, by re­solv­ing its lead­er­ship ques­tion.

Tran­sit Progress Day

Don’t you like the sound of some­thing so hope­ful, at the end of such a gloomy col­umn?

Tran­sit Progress Day will be cel­e­brated from noon to 3 p.m. Satur­day at the Na­tional Cap­i­tal Trol­ley Mu­seum in Colesville, Md.

I plan to be there for the spe­cial event. It’s a chance to learn about our long tran­sit his­tory and catch a ride on some old street­cars.

The op­ti­mistic ti­tle is de­rived from the days more than half a cen­tury ago when the old Cap­i­tal Tran­sit Co. touted im­prove­ments in the D.C. re­gion.

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