By Adam Pagnucco.
Senator Brian Feldman (D-15) and Delegate Marc Korman (D-16) make the case for County Executive candidate Roger Berliner in this email sent out by the Berliner campaign.
By Adam Pagnucco.
Transportation is an eternal issue in MoCo politics and most candidates mail on it. But this has been Delegate Marc Korman’s top priority since his first campaign and he has worked hard on this issue in the General Assembly, notably playing a key role in passing dedicated Metro funding. The only quarrel we have with this mailer is that Korman may not be taking enough credit for his work! Still, your author is a big Korman fan and we look forward to his second term.
By Adam Pagnucco.
Josh Starr was Superintendent of MCPS from 2011 through 2015 and still lives in MoCo. He announced the candidates whom he supports on Facebook yesterday. Agree with Starr or not, his personal experience of working with state and county elected officials gives him a unique perspective on those running for office. With his permission, we reprint his post below.
Very long post for my MoCo friends about my choices for the primaries, with notes/comments where I feel it’s appropriate. Please note that my choices and/or comments are based on my personal knowledge and experience with these folks, not any deep analysis of every statement/position/vote they’ve made. I definitely have biases.
Governor – Rich Madaleno; Baker would be my #2. When I was super, I found Rich to be one of the smartest, most thoughtful and most knowledgeable elected officials, esp. around budget. He was also one of the first Dems to push back against Hogan. Experienced, smart, progressive, would be a great governor. I’d also love to see an open member of the LGBTQ community elected governor, although that’s in no way the primary (pun intended) reason I’m supporting him.
Senator – Ben Cardin
Congress – Jamie Raskin, because he is, after all, The Jamie Raskin.
House of Delegates – 3 candidates:
Ariana Kelly – solid, speaks out on issues re: women, no reason for her not to continue in Annapolis.
Marc Korman – smart, thoughtful (in my LM class so I got to know him well), definitely a bright future.
Samir Paul – have had a few conversations with him, very sharp and we need more teachers in office.
County Executive (wherein I get a little snarky based on my experiences with many of these candidates). I also think the next CE might be a transitional leader, as we move from 12 years of Ike during an economic downturn towards a new vision that supports bold economic development with progressive politics.
I’m supporting Roger Berliner as I’ve always found him to be thoughtful, a really good listener/learner, consistent and progressive. I’ve always felt Roger tries to do the right thing in an inclusive and reasonable way and will work hard to bring people together around his vision.
A few comments on other CE candidates:
Blair – don’t know much about him, not a huge fan of business leaders assuming they can “save” public entities. I’m pretty agnostic.
Elrich – have always appreciated his progressive politics, always had a solid working relationship, sometimes I appreciate his willingness to take strong positions, sometimes I think they’re unforced errors; major concern is the big hill he’ll have to climb to convince a wide swath of the county that he can do economic development and enact a very progressive agenda.
Frick – there are some things I like about him, personally and professionally, but my experience with Roger Berliner outweighs any support for Frick.
Krasnow – don’t know her, but I hear good things, sounds like a solid choice.
Leventhal – based on personal/professional experience, I’m in the anyone-but-Leventhal camp. He doesn’t have the temperament or leadership skills to be CE, despite his sometimes-engaging personal style and progressive politics. Please, trust me on this one.
Council At-Large (4)
Gabe Albornoz – smart, engaging, thoughtful, has a very bright future; very supportive of kids and MCPS.
Hoan Dang – what I know, I like.
Will Jawando – he deserves a shot.
Hans Riemer – very education focused, solid on economy and progressive issues, always had a good working relationship, we need someone with experience and we need a degree of stability.
I am also in the anyone-but-Jill Ortman Fouse category, based on my experience with her as a board of education member while I was superintendent. Trust me.
Council – D1
Peter Fosselman – solid, good record in Kensington, deserves a shot at council.
BoE (always at the end of the ballot)
At-Large- Karla Silvestre, glad to see her running, great community leader, smart, thoughtful, will be a great BoE member.
D3 – Pat O’Neill, because she deserves a shot at the MD record for longest serving board member. On a serious note, she knows what the role of a board member is and provides an essential balance to other board members who think their job is to run the school system.
One of the responses to Metro’s critics is a variation of “things are tough all over.” Not so fast. Other major subway and light-rail systems may have problems but this graph from yesterday’s Wall St. Journal shows that WMATA is in a class all its own. Ridership is down 19% from 2011 through 2016. And no one thinks those figures are picking up even though SafeTrack is over and we’re theoretically “Back to Good.”
You can make the case that this proves the dire need for more money invested in capital improvements to make the system more reliable. But it also makes the case for improved accountability for WMATA. This goes beyond Paul Wiedefeld to include Metro’s ineffectual board and problematic unions.
Resources are important but it’s also how they are spent. Consider how many escalators have been “fixed” or even completely replaced only to stop working almost immediately. Consider further how many problems federal inspectors found with the tracks even right after SafeTrack passed through an area.
ATU Local 689 has fought against firing track inspectors who falsified inspection reports and put public safety at risk. You can say that the union is doing its job for its workers. But the workers, and the union that defends them, sure aren’t working for Metro’s riders or public safety here.
My sense is that Paul Wiedefeld has pushed change in a positive direction of actually trying to fix the the system. But the ridership numbers tell the story. I want Metro to get more money but I equally want evidence that Metro will spend it better.
We’re hearing a lot from Maryland state legislators, and even the Governor, about dedicated funding. Not as much about reforming its expenditure. Dels. Marc Korman (D-16) and Erek Barron (D-24), who have been leaders on dedicated funding, also have a bill in to improve how we appoint Maryland’s board members. (Sen. Brian Feldman D-15 is sponsoring the Senate bills.) It’s a start. But far, far more is needed to restore public confidence.
By Adam Pagnucco.
Recently, we have run several reports on fundraising through January 2018. This post combines all of our data and presents the top 20 fundraisers in MoCo so far. Note that we break out self-financing and report totals raised for the cycle, not just totals since the last report. And… here they are!
A few random thoughts.
1. It’s natural to expect Brian Frosh and Peter Franchot to be the leaders since they both hold statewide offices. Of the county-level candidates, Council Member Roger Berliner, who is running for Executive, is number one.
2. The numbers for Senator Rich Madaleno (D-18), who is running for Governor, are misleading since he will be applying for public matching funds. Madaleno has said that he anticipates receiving about $975,000 from the state.
3. Delegate Jeff Waldstreicher (D-18), who is running for Senate, is the leading fundraiser among all of MoCo’s state legislators. He will need that money against his self-funding rival, Dana Beyer.
4. County Executive candidate David Blair, gubernatorial candidate Krish Vignarajah, Council District 1 candidate Andrew Friedson and Council At-Large candidate Bill Conway are first-time candidates. It’s a significant achievement for first-timers to make a list of this kind although it’s somewhat tempered by the self-financing of Blair and Vignarajah.
5. Delegate Marc Korman (D-16) is the only first-term elected official on this list. That’s a big deal and a sign of good things to come.
6. Council Member Marc Elrich, who is running for Executive, has never been on a top fundraising list in his life. He is now, and that’s thanks to public financing.
7. Lieutenant Governor candidate Susan Turnbull raised more money in a month and a half of campaigning than half the people on this list did in the entire cycle, a staggering feat.
8. Governor Larry Hogan has raised more money this cycle ($11.5 million) than everyone on this list combined.
Note: an earlier version of this post mistakenly omitted Turnbull’s results. We have corrected it to include her.
By Adam Pagnucco.
First, the easy part: all three incumbents – Senator Susan Lee and Delegates Ariana Kelly and Marc Korman – are running as a team and are headed to reelection. Lee has historically been one of the delegation’s best fundraisers (although Korman surpassed her by a little bit this cycle). Kelly is beloved by advocates for families, women and children for her work on their issues and has emerged as a leader on ridding Annapolis of sexual harassment. Korman is a rare bird: a lawyer who is good with numbers. Metro riders everywhere should thank him for his tenacious work to improve WMATA. Great things are predicted for Korman so long as he does not return to blogging.
Attorney Sara Love and MCPS teacher Samir Paul are the top non-incumbents vying for the seat being vacated by Delegate Bill Frick, who is running for County Executive. Love and Paul would be great candidates in any part of the county, but unfortunately for them, they are running in the same district. Love fits in well with the progressive female voters who dominate District 16 primaries. Paul is a teacher who has been active in MCEA (which has endorsed him), but his message is much bigger than education as he draws links between all public institutions that confer benefits but require investment, especially WMATA. Love and Paul had super fundraising performances and are essentially equal in cash on hand. Those who have met them are impressed with both of them, but sadly, there is only one open seat.
The Big Question: will Frick, who filed a disappointing January report, drop back down to the House race? We know Frick does not enjoy that question, but since he withdrew from the Attorney General’s race and refiled for Delegate at the last hour in 2014, this is on everybody’s mind. Such a move by Frick would probably result in all four incumbents being reelected, wasting huge time and effort by Love and Paul.
This district is a mess. The only certainty here is that Senator Cheryl Kagan and Delegate Kumar Barve will be reelected, assuming that Kagan is not picked up by a gubernatorial candidate as a running mate. As for everything else… well.
At the root of the mess is Delegate Jim Gilchrist. By all accounts, he is a nice guy who never causes trouble. His defenders describe him as a studious, intellectual workhorse who gets into the weeds and doesn’t claim credit for anything. But he has little tangible to show for three terms in office. He has passed no signature legislation. His website is inactive. His Facebook page has not been updated since 2014 as of this writing. And his fundraising is weak. Consider this: since 2006, Gilchrist has raised a total of $83,217 from others, an average of $27,739 per cycle. (He has also self-financed $11,120 over that period.) MoCo has a bunch of candidates who can raise $27,000 in a month.
The search result for Gilchrist’s website less than five months from election day.
So why does he keep winning office? He has a guardian angel: Barve, who is his committee chair and likes him. Barve slates with him regularly and appears in joint mailers with him. Gilchrist would be a goner in most districts, but with Barve helping him, he survives. And that has caused grumbling in some parts of District 17.
This time, Rockville City Council Member Julie Palakovich Carr decided to run for Delegate in July even when it appeared that all three incumbents (Barve, Gilchrist and Andrew Platt) were running for reelection. Six months later, Platt dropped out and Barve and Gilchrist quickly decided to slate with Palakovich Carr. That’s when simmering tensions erupted into the open.
Kagan, who is no fan of Gilchrist, announced that she was not endorsing the Delegate slate, at least not yet. This is almost unheard of; in virtually all cases when incumbent Delegates form a slate and none of them are challenging the sitting Senator, the Senator participates. And when Kagan posted her decision on Facebook, the Mayor of Gaithersburg and two Gaithersburg City Council Members voiced their displeasure with the slate.
Open dissatisfaction with the Delegate slate surfaces on Kagan’s Facebook page.
The nominal reason expressed by some for their unhappiness is that with the inclusion of Palakovich Carr, all three slate members are from Rockville and none are from Gaithersburg. (The two cities are roughly equal in size.) But lurking underneath is festering discontent with Gilchrist’s performance in office. Some would prefer open competition in part because it might lead to Gilchrist’s defeat, but instead they got another slate designed to protect him. Two Gaithersburg House candidates – school board member Rebecca Smondrowski and attorney Julian Haffner (who is married to a City Council Member) – have now entered the race. Barve is the only Delegate candidate with any real money, so all the others have a lot of work to do.
The Big Questions: will the Gaithersburg grumblers step up and organize for one or more of the House candidates from their city? Or will they cut their losses and make their peace with Barve and his slate-mates? And what, if anything, will Kagan do?
Today, I am pleased to present a guest post by Del. Marc Korman about former Planning Board Chair Royce Hanson’s new book on the history of planning in Montgomery County.
Rumors abound that there could be more than 50 candidates running for the Montgomery County Council in the next election cycle (after attending the recent Montgomery County Democratic Party Spring ball, I think that could be an under-estimate). I would recommend that each of them dive into Suburb: Planning Politics and the Public Interest, by Royce Hanson.
Royce Hanson is a legendary figure in Montgomery County. He chaired the Planning Board from 1972 to 1980 and was brought back in as something of an elder statesman from 2006 to 2010 to clean-up improprieties fond related to development in Clarksburg. His most lauded accomplishment is the establishment of the Agricultural Reserve which covers about one-third of Montgomery County although he oversaw numerous sector and master plans during his two tenures. Mr. Hanson has had less success as a political candidate in the County.
Suburb is closely related to a series of speeches Mr. Hanson gave at the Planning Board Department in 2014 and 2015, which can be watched online and may be more accessible for some than the book. Hanson’s book—like the lectures—tells the story of planning in Montgomery County essentially from the establishment of the bicounty agencies Washington Suburban Sanitation Commission and Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (the Planning Board) in the 1910s virtually up until the present. Hanson sees County land use through three lenses.
First, land use decisions are usually the outcome of the back and forth between what he calls the “Miniature Republic”—homeowners, taxpayers–and the “Commercial Republic”—major land owners and developers. At different times and in different locations, the power rests more heavily with one than the other.
Second, he traces land use decisions through several political regimes in the County’s history, which will be of particular interest to many local readers: The [Blair] Lee regime dominated by an insider political machine; the builders and the bar regime in which land use attorneys controlled the planning process; the progressive regime that emerged from the new Executive form of government in the 1970s, which he views himself as a product of; and the current “pure political” regime which Hanson views as lacking a cohesive vision for County land use.
Third, Hanson sees ultimate planning decisions as the place where the logic of consequentiality—the more technical and planning-based logic of bureaucrats–meets the logic of appropriateness—the politician’s changes to satisfy certain parties and make planning decisions more palatable.
The book marches through a number of “case studies” beginning with the 1964 General Plan, known as Wedges and Corridors; reimagining Bethesda and Friendship Heights for Metro; the resurgence of Silver Spring; updating White Flint for the 21st century; development of corridor cities such as Gaithersburg, Rockville, Montgomery Village, and Germantown; the huge and scandalous errors with Clarksburg development; the creation of the Agricultural Reserve; and the growth policy regularly updated by the Planning Board and County Council and now called the Subdivision Staging Policy. Each of these chapters is rich with detail, but at times it feels as though you are just reading a series of facts and events as opposed to any type of analysis. There are insights about what political and planning compromises worked (and sometimes didn’t work) in specific locations in Montgomery County at particular times, but broader conclusions about planning and process are hard to discern.
Indeed, Hanson even recognizes this late in the book when he concedes that it “is hazardous to overgeneralize from the experience of Montgomery County”, although he goes on to say that examples, analogies, insights, and more can be drawn and applied elsewhere, which is true in the broad sense that another place could redevelop a suburban strip mall near transit, come up with transferable development rights, or target specific neighborhoods through sector plans. As someone more interested in the Montgomery County story, this approach helped focused on facts and events suited me fine but may be seen as a shortcoming to others. Indeed, while as I said I think this book is important to read for County Council candidates, I’m not sure who else besides them, other local elected officials, and committed local activists would really appreciate this book. I certainly did, but I’m in one of those relatively narrow buckets.
Hanson may have been torn between writing a history of Montgomery County planning politics and case studies that could potentially be used to teach planners anywhere and sometimes he did not find the balance he was looking for. Those interested in the history will want to know who the unnamed councilmembers were who voted against appointing Norman Christellar Planning Board Chair and planning students will probably want to know why the failed plan to build another Mall of America in Silver Spring is relevant to their studies. I, of course, understand why a pure Montgomery County history book was not written, as it would clearly have a small audience. It has also been pointed out to me that the history of the County’s actions over race are almost entirely omitted. I am sure others who lived through some of these planning efforts will note their own omissions.
Still, for you local history buffs there are plenty of interesting facts. For example, County Executives used to control some appointments to the Planning Board and, for a time under County Executive Kramer, they could revise plans before they went to the Council. Neil Potter devolved these powers back to the Council after defeating Kramer. Hanson is also open with his criticism of some local County players and even relies on Adam Pagnucco research in making his attacks. Former Councilwoman Idamae Garrott comes off as particularly responsive to the current mood of the best organized voters.
If you sit in lots of meetings about sector plans, dream about being on the County Council, or read blogs like this one, then this book is for you. It covers interesting history and can be a good reference regarding particular parts of the County. But for those not fitting that description, this book and its detailed history of Montgomery County land use may be more of a slog. For the right audience, this book can provide a useful baseline of how Montgomery County developed over the last century and why.
Today, Del. Marc Korman announced that he plans to run for reelection to the House of Delegates from District 16 in 2018 rather than seek the open seat in District 1 on the Montgomery County Council.
Today, I am pleased to present a guest post by Dels. Marc Korman (D-16) and Erek Barron (D-24):
When we arrived in Annapolis in January of 2015, we immediately partnered to form the WMATA-Metro Work Group and bring more attention to issues related to Metro in Annapolis. After all, the state invests hundreds of millions of dollars to WMATA each year and increased oversight is sorely needed. We are cautiously optimistic that the new General Manager, Paul Wiedefeld, can bring some much needed change to WMATA. He has set out his own plan for reform, much of which we enthusiastically support. But after spending two legislative sessions hearing from WMATA officials and other stakeholders on an almost weekly basis, we have some of our own reform suggestions. Some of these are major structural or funding changes and others are more minor tweaks to Metro operations, but we think all are worthy of discussion by WMATA and the region.
Out the outset, we should note that none of these ideas can replace or should distract from the immediate safety work necessary for the system to operate. SafeTrack and other efforts are important, but it is our hope that some of these ideas can keep the system from finding itself in a situation like the one it is in now ever again.
Board Structure: The WMATA Board is the primary means of providing oversight of Metro. But each appointing jurisdiction treats the Board in a different fashion. In Maryland, Board members are Gubernatorial appointees and answer to the Governor. In the District of Columbia, usually a Councilmember and a Mayoral appointee serve as the Board Members. In Virginia, there is a divide between state and local appointees. The District and Virginia have elected officials on the Board, while Maryland and the federal government do not. The Board members all receive different levels of pay from their jurisdictions. This structural mismatch causes disharmony on the Board, makes Board members’ different perspectives even more pronounced, and is generally inefficient. Standardizing how each jurisdiction treats the Board so that their appointees are similarly positioned would improve the Board’s critical governance function.
Resources for Board Members: The WMATA Board is a strange beast. It is the primary method of oversight for WMATA, yet its Board Members essentially have no resources. Board members who are elected officials or work in government may be able to use those resources to support their work, but other members do not have those options. Consideration should be given to providing board members with the resources and ability to provide adequate oversight and independent analysis of WMATA activities, instead of being forced to rely entirely on WMATA staff.
Board Meeting Options: WMATA board meetings seem to follow a basic pattern in which WMATA staff tells the Board what they want to do on an issue, the Board asks a few questions, and the item is usually agreed to. Sometimes, the Board pushes back and the staff has to withdraw the item and come up with alternatives at a future meeting. Staff should consider providing more options up front for the Board on major issues (such as fare options) and let the Board make more informed decisions on the basis of those options.
Public Meetings and Access: WMATA Board Members have made an effort over the last year or two to show up at stations and meet with riders. Far more of this public engagement and outreach is necessary. Whether that is stepped up station visits, rider-focused town halls, or better use of social media, WMATA needs to engage its riders. Twitter, for example, is not a random sampling of riders, but the frustration expressed in the Twitterverse is palpable and more opportunities need to be created to allow riders to express their concerns to WMATA board members and personnel.
Auction Board Seats: Someone in Annapolis suggested this idea to us. If jurisdictions want more say over how WMATA operates, they could compete for additional Board seats—with an overall cap—through an auction process: a Board seat could be bought in exchange for additional operating or capital subsidies. This could provide WMATA with necessary additional revenue.
Secretarial Board: An entirely different Board model has been floated by a WMATA board member, which would be to have a more focused Board made up of the Transportation Secretaries—or an Assistant Secretary—from each jurisdiction. It would be a radical change from the current model, but might make WMATA more politically accountable by tying the Board more directly to the elected leadership in each jurisdiction. There are issues with this approach, such as how to handle Virginia’s localities, but this is a radical reform that should be discussed. If this radical reform is a bridge too far, then perhaps an “Executive Council” of each jurisdiction’s transportation secretaries could meet on a regular and scheduled basis to address major issues, providing guidance to the Board as to what will be acceptable to the compact members.
Dedicated funding: Probably the number one suggestion people have about WMATA is a dedicated funding source. Currently, only Northern Virginia has any “dedicated funding” for WMATA, with a 2% gas tax being allocated to WMATA and making up less than 15% of the entire Virginia operating subsidy. Meanwhile, the District of Columbia actually passed legislation in 2006 dedicating one half of one percent of its retail sales tax to WMATA, but it was contingent on similar action by the other jurisdictions which never occurred (it was estimated that this would raise $50 million) at the time. Dedicated funding would not be a cure all for Metro’s woes, but would definitely help. Options for dedicated funding include a regional sales tax, transfer tax, a property tax supplement for property near Metro, and several other options. Although progress on this issue continues to lag, it should remain a part of the conversation. Board Chairman Jack Evans has made it front and center to his agenda, although any funding change should come with governance and management reforms.
Federal Operating Subsidy: All of the Compact jurisdictions, except the federal government, provide an operating subsidy to Metro. Indeed, the federal government was given Board seats in exchange for a non-guaranteed annual capital appropriation of $150 million. The federal government should also provide an annual operating subsidy to WMATA, just as other jurisdictions with Board seats do. This should become a top priority for our region’s Congressional leaders. Again, Board Chairman Evans has rightfully been discussing this issue.
Station Ownership: Station Managers need to take more ownership of their stations. The new GM’s plan includes establishing management ownership of each rail line to improve the customer experience and something similar should occur with the Metro stations. Some Station Managers do stand outside of the control booth and take pride in their stations, bar far too many are inaccessible in the control booth and unaware of what is happening in the station, not making sure it is welcoming, clean, and functioning. Station Managers should be appropriately compensated and incentivized to take more ownership of their stations.
Station Task Forces: In one of our districts, a group of local residents, businesses, and government leaders formed a station improvement task force to try and improve the Bethesda Metro Station. Their efforts have improved cleanliness at the station, brought in new public art, and put Bethesda at the forefront of station modernization efforts. This model should be followed at every station in the system to make sure every community is getting the attention and improvements it deserves.
Escalator Alignment: Most stations have a standard traffic flow to them. Those in downtown DC have more exiting passengers than entering passengers in the morning and vice versa in the suburbs. Yet escalators are not regularly adjusted for this natural schedule. If a station has three escalators, two of the escalators should be aligned in the direction of the most travel and that should be switched at the appropriate time during the day by Station Managers. This will reduce crowding and be generally more convenient for riders.
Vendors: Even with declining ridership, thousands of people stream in and out of rail stations and major bus stations on a daily basis. WMATA needs to focus more on revenue capture from these opportunities, such as shoeshine stands, coffee shops for those exiting, or even small pharmacy stands. WMATA needs to get aggressive about alternative revenue options besides fares and jurisdiction subsidies.
Signage: Metro stations are hard to navigate, particularly for tourists. Those unfamiliar with where they are try to squint through grimy windows into dark stations with signs few and far between. Someday, when all the railcars are new, station announcements will be clear and in-car displays will explain what station the train is at. But there is no need to wait to add additional signage throughout Metro stations.
Metro Aesthetic: Metro stations were built as cathedrals with high ceilings, dim lighting, and an expansive feel. Unfortunately, the large stations are hard to heat and cool, the lighting fixtures and walls are difficult to clean, and the darkness raises safety issues and is inconvenient for passengers waiting for single tracking trains while trying to read. Yet many traditionalists want to maintain this “Metro aesthetic” as though the system were new. We cannot be bound to the design decisions of decades ago. Some stations can be preserved for historical reasons, but most should be updated and modernized when funding is available with better signage, lighting, and less “Metro brown.”
Easy Infrastructure: Within the past few years, an additional stairwell between the platform and Mezzanine was added at the Bethesda Metro station. This low cost and easy infrastructure improvement has eased escalator crowding and spread people out at the station. Additional easy infrastructure changes should be quickly evaluated and undertaken as they are low cost but high reward.
Repeat Work: There is a concerning pattern with WMATA needing to repeat maintenance work multiple times. A recent example of this was the inspection of the jumper cables on the day of the shutdown. These cables had supposedly been inspected after the L’Enfant Plaza incident, but somehow major problems were missed. We are also on the third attempt at sustainable escalator repairs: We began with spot fixes; WMATA then tried to take apart, clean, and rebuild the escalators; and now we are on full replacement. Recent discussion of the need to potentially close entire lines for more maintenance—after years of a capital program that has been extremely disruptive—may be the latest example of the necessity for repeat work. How much other work is being done multiple times? WMATA needs to quickly get to the bottom of this problem.
Single Tracking: One of the major frustrations with Metro’s rebuilding efforts is the single tracking and long delays. Indeed, the system is virtually un-rideable on the weekends. But many transit systems operate on only two tracks. New York is actually unique in the amount of track redundancy it has built in. WMATA should canvass other transit systems to make sure it is using modern best practices when it comes to serving its customers safely while doing necessary rebuilding.
Low Income Fares: The maximum WMATA rail fare is a whopping $5.90, compared to a flat cost of $2.75 in New York City or $2.50 in Atlanta. Because of that high cost, many low income riders cannot use the system. Some jurisdictions, such as Boston, are experimenting with lower fares for low income riders. WMATA should follow suit.
SmarTrip on MARC: Baltimore City and WMATA have an interoperable SmarTrip card. But the transit option that connects them—the MARC train—does not accept SmarTrip. WMATA should work with the Maryland Transit Administration to change this and truly connect these two urban centers. We are biased towards Maryland, but if Virginia wants to pursue something similar on the VRE, that should be supported as well.
Safety Culture: Safety culture is discussed a lot in reference to WMATA. Supposedly, a safety culture was established after the Fort Totten incident but ongoing events suggest otherwise. The new General Manager seems to have really changed the tone at WMATA. One of the issues we have observed is that the “safety culture” at WMATA often boils down to checking off NTSB or FTA safety recommendations and directives. But a safety culture is not just checking boxes to rectify previously identified problems. It requires all WMATA personnel to be looking over the horizon for other safety issues and concerns. That is the attitude WMATA management needs to demand and implement.
Rail Operations Control Center: Reports about the Rail Operations Control Center (“ROCC”) are incredibly concerning. WMATA claims it has new employees in training to re-staff the ROCC, which is currently understaffed. But there are reports that the current staff at the ROCC push new people out to protect their overtime. This obviously needs to be seriously addressed. One idea is to raise the base pay of those in the ROCC and bring on more, trained people quickly. Some may view such a move as rewarding bad behavior, but something has to be done quickly to improve the climate at the ROCC and its contribution to a safe system.
Bus Mirrors: Many of the safety issues currently discussed relate to rail, but there are bus issues as well. One issue raised by bus drivers is that the side rear view mirrors block sight lines and endanger pedestrians who drivers cannot see. This has been the subject of litigation in other jurisdictions and there are simple solutions to reduce the size of mirrors and improve safety.
Automatic train control (“ATC”)
Metrorail has operated largely without automatic train control since the 2009 Red Line collision. Last spring, ATC was restored for eight car Red Line trains, but six car trains and trains on the system’s other lines remain in manual control. Restoring ATC system-wide is crucial for both safety and reliability. Currently, it is not uncommon for train operators to have to move their train a few additional feet forward to meet the end of the platform after stopping at the station. This creates a jerky experience for riders as they prepare to exit the train, since most don’t expect the train to move again once it’s already stopped. Less frequent but far more inconvenient are instances where a train operator overshoots the platform and must skip the station altogether. Returning to ATC will eliminate these problems while increasing safety and reliability. While restoring ATC and ensuring that it functions safely is a large and complex task, it must remain a priority in order to make the system safe and convenient.
Riders Advisory Council (“RAC”)
RAC Selection: Metro’s RAC has six members each from Maryland, Virginia, and DC, two at-large members and the head of the Accessibility Advisory Committee. Members are appointed by the WMATA Board. An alternative approach that would improve RAC independence would be to have the RAC appointed by the heads of the state or local governments in the WMATA Compact. That would ensure that the RAC is truly independent of the Board and representing the riders.
RAC Jurisdictions: RAC’s members in Maryland and Virginia are all from the local jurisdictions that make up the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Zone (Arlington, Fairfax, Loudon, Alexandria, Falls Church, Montgomery, and Prince George’s). But there are many riders from other nearby counties such as Frederick or Prince Williams. The option should be available to have RAC members, perhaps the at-large members, from these other jurisdictions.
Benchmarking: One Montgomery County Councilmember has called for benchmarking WMATA to peer systems. This type of public benchmarking would be helpful and is already in use by some systems. Every system is different, but it would be useful to see how WMATA compares to peers on some key indicators such as on-time performance, car utilization, and so on. Community of Metros (“CoMET”) is already doing this type of work and WMATA should join the effort.
Ride Sharing: There has been concern expressed recently about ride sharing’s effect on transit and whether ride sharing can be adequately used for paratransit. WMATA should begin pilot programs to use ride sharing to connect some riders’ last mile connections to bus and rail transit. Usually, riders need to be less than a half mile from transit to regularly access it on foot. Ride sharing can expand that envelope.
Archives/Documents Office: WMATA no longer has an official in charge of preserving and making publicly available historic documents. This reduces public accountability for WMATA’s actions. If you have ever read Zachary Schrag’s The Great Society Subway, an incredible account of WMATA’s history, you know the insight that can be provided by making historical material available.
Ridership Reports: Last year, Maryland passed legislation requiring a Maryland-specific ridership report from WMATA. Most of the data is already collected by WMATA, but this required a jurisdiction-specific report to demonstrate how WMATA is used, especially by those outside of the Montgomery and Prince George’s County. Ridership from other counties outside the compact helps justify the substantial expense Maryland rightly pays for WMATA. Ridership reports that similarly track DC, Virginia, and even federal employee and contractor ridership would go a long way to demonstrating in detail the benefits of the system.
Jurisdiction Work Groups: WMATA oversight is complicated because of its multi-jurisdictional nature. When we were elected, we formed a work group in Annapolis to try and provide some oversight to the system. Indeed, almost every week during our legislative session we are joined by a WMATA staff member or other stakeholder to discuss in detail some of the issues, challenges, and opportunities before Metro. We believe this is a useful model that the other jurisdictions should follow. Oversight by the jurisdictions tends to come after emergencies, but real oversight is regularly occurring and not just reactive.
Reduce Turnover: WMATA has a surprisingly high turnover rate. Between 2009 and 2013, 417 of 535 train operators turned over. Considering that these are well compensated union jobs, that is a high turnover rate. Reducing that turnover rate for train operators and other positions will allowed better trained and experienced personnel to operate the system. That does not mean WMATA should retain personnel not acting appropriately, but turnover should not be systematically high.
Real Estate Coordination: WMATA has a robust real estate development operation as it tries to improve transit-oriented development on land it owns around stations. That office could improve in two ways. First, much more communication and coordination is needed with local elected officials who represent the areas around the stations and with the local business community and residents. These stakeholders have little insight from WMATA on their plans. Second, the real estate office is solely focused on WMATA’s holdings. But it has great expertise in transit-oriented development that it could offer to other landowners around stations to make sure that we are meeting our economic development goals around Metro. Another outside the box idea being floated is to spin-off this function from WMATA entirely, which is certainly an idea worth considering.
Parking: WMATA operates 44 parking facilities at Metrorail stations. This means that in addition to all of its other functions, WMATA is also managing a whole other line of business, parking. WMATA needs to consider whether the parking business should be subcontracted or even spun off into another public entity to better manage its operations.
Metro Innovation: Another unfortunate trend we have noticed during our Work Group meetings is a status quo culture: WMATA personnel’s insistence that everything is going according to plan. WMATA rarely admits errors or mistakes and often gives the impression that if they were just left alone by the public and the press, everything would be fine. This status quo attitude is obviously not shared by the new GM, but that is another cultural issue that needs to be addressed at the agency. To change this culture WMATA should encourage its leadership teams to select system challenges and, following the path of the tech industry, think of new approaches to bring value to WMATA and its customers. One area ripe for innovation is Metro Access, the paratransit service. This service is costly and causes frustration for many users. Innovation in Metro Access is absolutely necessary whether it is more pilot projects for certain populations as currently exists in Montgomery and Prince George’s County where regular, dedicated drivers are being used for certain groups; better GPS technology for routing; or even ride sharing with adequate protections where appropriate.
Greater Greater Washington’s response to the series of problems with both the Metro and the DC streetcar was to blame “media hysteria” and remind us that transit is still safer than driving. So pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.
Fortunately, like the public they represent, legislators in the General Assembly think the continuing rot in Metro not only needs to be stopped but reversed. I don’t think this weekend’s repeated problems will persuade them otherwise.
Freshmen Del. Marc Korman (D-16) and Del. Erek Barron (D-24) have real interest in transit issues and have organized an informal Metro working group as part of an effort to figure out how to fix WMATA and exert more effective pressure to do so.
Special kudos to Del. Tawanna Gaines (D-22) who heads the House Appropriations Subcommittee on the Environment and Transportation for supporting the effort. It’s terrific to see leaders like Del. Gaines working to support reform efforts.
The people involved realize that these are long-term problems with no quick fix. Hopefully, they can (1) improve oversight of Metro, (2) get Metro to address some specific problems, and (3) start to address some of the central questions around WMATA’s management and funding.
Fortunately, the interest in these questions extends even beyond the Metro area. Great to hear that Del. Brooke Lierman (D-46) and Del. Bob Flanagan (R-9B) joined many legislators from Montgomery and Prince George’s to attend the group meetings. Del. Flanagan was a former Secretary of Transportation in the Ehrlich administration.
While I look forward to seeing the group’s action plan as they learn more about WMATA, it is a good start that those involved know there are serious problems and want to figure out how to fix them in a more systematic, effective way.