Metro board shows even a transit system can experience gridlock
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.