Episode 003 of the FixWMATA Podcast was recorded in December, 2017 and features news and interviews about the WMATA Riders’ Advisory Council with Dennis Jaffe (@DennisJaffe) and Colin Reusch (@ColinReusch).
Link to Ian Sutherland's Music: http://freemusicarchive.org/music/ian_sutherland
Text of this episode:
I’m Chris Barnes and this… is the FixWMATA Podcast
This week we take a quick look back at the news from November 18th through December 2nd, 2017 and then the rest of this episode is dedicated to the WMATA Riders’ Advisory Council – also known as the RAC….
In WMATA news this week…
The Ray LaHood report is finally being released by Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe (McCall If) – the report seems to be too little too late after taking a thrashing in the month since it was leaked to the Washington Post.
A Metro train operator was fired after being caught on his cell phone while operating a train at 53 miles per hour. A rider caught the train operator in the act and took a picture with clear evidence.
Metro continues troubleshooting problems with the new 7000 series rail cars. They’re meeting with Kawasaki who manufactured the rail cars and as General Manager Paul Wiedefeld says the 7000 series “is a very complex computer” that requires continued tweaks. Riders have seen evidence of these problems with next station displays that don’t work and door problems over the last year.
The day after Thanksgiving WMATA announced 2 new policy changes. First there will be new levels of SelectPass which should be a benefit to riders using the monthly pass program. But a 2nd policy change has riders seeing red – WMATA plans to end a long-running program that allows a negative balance on your SmarTrip card. This is an important benefit to riders because WMATA is a time of day and distance based fare – meaning you may think you have enough money on your SmarTrip card only to find you can’t exit because you’re short. The obvious solution to that problem is to use one of the fare refill machines located inside the exit area to refill your card – but those machines only accept $1, $5, or $10 in cash. Riders are not happy about the change and WMATA says there are no plans to upgrade the exit fare machines to accept credit or debit.
WMATA’s largest union, ATU Local 689, teamed up with 2 Maryland lawmakers this week to announce new legislation to improve Metro. The legislation calls for “flat fares” of $2.50. When pressed for more detail the union admitted any current fare lower than $2.50 would remain at it’s current rate – which initiated a debate with the union and others about what exactly a flat-fare was.
WMATA began a 16-day shutdown of the Red Line between Fort Totten and Silver Spring which hasn’t been popular with riders. To complicate the situation WMATA chose to use private contracted coach buses instead of Metro buses for the shuttles between Silver Spring, Takoma, and Fort Totten. This upset the union as well as accessibility advocates. The union is upset over the use of private contractors and accessibility advocates are angry over the lack of accessibility on the private coach buses. The shutdown continues through December 10th.
Many took to the internet to declare WMATA is fighting a war on Christmas after rejecting a Catholic charity ad based on their current advertising standards that prevent issue-oriented advertising. Ironically the block by Metro followed by the internet outrage seems to have generated more publicity for the charity than the ad would have likely received on Metro buses.
And a Metro bus driver took to Facebook to claim WMATA is a “good old boys club” that discourages sex assault reporting at the Authority. Linda Mercer, who is also a union shop steward and running for union first Vice President, has been driving for Metro for 15 years and says “you can’t tell, because when you tell, you’re blackballed”.
All of these stories and more can be found on FixWMATA dot com where new stories are added throughout the week.
On September 25, 2005, Metro’s Board of Directors established a Riders’ Advisory Council. The Council advises the Board on issues affecting Metrobus, Metrorail, and MetroAccess service.
The 21-member Council includes six individuals from Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia, two at-large members, and the head of the Accessibility Advisory Committee.
That’s exactly how the Riders’ Advisory Council – or RAC – is described on WMATA’s website. What this means is 21 members of the riding public are responsible for providing feedback to the Board of Directors on behalf of millions of riders. The only other opportunity we, as riders, have to provide feedback to the WMATA Board of Directors is at a public forum which happens only a few times a year.
So the RAC shoulders great responsibility. As a former member of the RAC I’m aware of problems in the way the group is run – problems that riders can’t afford at a time when Metro is, as described by many people, in a death spiral.
I certainly have my opinions but I wanted to talk with someone who helped form the RAC back in 2005 and someone who’s currently serving on the RAC to get their take on what’s holding the RAC back from being a better representative of the ridership.
My first interview is with Dennis Jaffe – the first Chair of the Riders’ Advisory Council back in 2005 and my 2nd interview is with Colin Reusch – a current member representing all jurisdictions on the RAC. Listen to both interviews. See if you can catch the similarities in problems faced 12 years ago and problems faced today.
Dennis, @DennisJaffe on Twitter, was one of the original RAC members and helped bring the Council into existence and write the bylaws by which they function. He was also the first Chair of the Council. Dennis moved to DC in 1998 and champions opening up government and politics and advocates for transit riders in the DC area.
I sat down with Dennis in Dupont Circle to find out how the RAC came to be… the interview is a little long but we covered a lot of topics….
[begin interview audio]
[FixWMATA] I’m sitting down with Dennis Jaffe, a former member of the Riders’ Advisory Council. Dennis thank you so much for your time today.
[Dennis] Sure. Glad to be talking with you.
[F] Dennis, when did you serve on the RAC and which jurisdiction did you represent?
[D] It was 2005 and I was representing the District of Columbia.
[F] You and I belong to a very small but growing club of people who have represented the District of Columbia on WMATA’s RAC. Why did you leave?
[D] In my case I had been given a professional opportunity on the West Coast and I moved out there for 2 years and I ultimately did come back. I have absolutely noticed however the next 2 Chairs, perhaps the next 3 or 4 Chairs following me all left the RAC probably if not immediately during the year following their tenure serving as Chair of the RAC and they were burnt out.
[F] What would lead a Chair to be burnt out on the RAC? I mean, this is a group of people who are just taking feedback from riders, supposedly, and turning that around in a way that Metro management and the Board can understand. Why were people getting burned out?
[D] Well certainly I can speak more knowledgeably to the very beginning years. I was the first Chair of the RAC when it was first established and what I saw, with me and others, is that many staff at the agency actively intentionally worked to stymy advocacy efforts, information requests, by members of the public including most certainly the RAC as well. They have always been fearful unfortunately that a strong, independent influential effective RAC is oh my god out of control – we can’t control it and they will steer an agenda that will not aligned with what we want to be pursuing – we meaning senior staff at the agency.
[F] You were the first Chair of the RAC. Can you give us a little background how the RAC came to be? Because for most of us we just know it just is there but we don’t know the story of what brought it around and what the original goal was.
[D] I had been active for a few years with Sierra Club on transit issues affecting the region and one day a member of the staff of the Sierra Club for the region said to me that they were finding that the dissatisfaction that I was voicing as sort of a transit consumer, if you will, as the rider as opposed to public policy smart growth sustainable transportation perspective because I don’t have formal academic training in that – and she told me that they were finding that in their efforts to raise public support for a dedicated funding source, which is so critically important for WMATA – for Metro – that they were meeting resistance from the public, skepticism, lack of confidence in the agency because “WMATA’s doing this wrong”, “Metro couldn’t do this”, “Did you see what Metro did the other day?”. And so they were finding you know what – we need to have a voice for riders to influence the agency to be it’s better self to better serve riders so the agency could be better. They’ve always been afraid of that at the agency – most staff. The members of the Board of Directors, for the most part, have not been. There’s been some but they are much more in the public mix of dialogue and public affairs and media interviews, etc, and so it’s part of civic culture that they would be dealing with someone who would be raising an issue. But staff – they were afraid of it so they wanted to quash things. One of the things that happened was staff as we developed the bylaws, and we took quite some time in 2005 to develop bylaws and rules and procedures for the RAC before it actually finally got established, and one of them was to ensure that RAC members had a right to publicly speak about any appropriate relevant issue related to the agency and staff was so virulently head-strong resistant to that until I finally proposed some cover language – something along the lines of “that they will not purport to represent the agency”.
[F] OK – so that’s how it all came to be. Can you name something in those formative years that the RAC accomplished for riders?
[D] When I first became Chair there was a woman – Mary Williams is just a wonderful person – and she used MetroAccess and in the days just before we actually took our seats on the RAC, when it was the inception of it, she told me that how bad the experience was for MetroAccess riders and, I don’t know if it’s 1% of all riders – so it’s certainly a small percentage of the overall riding population, but my god the headlines – every 5 years the Washington Post invests more energy into documenting how bad MetroAccess has been and you’d look up a headline and you’d probably see something somewhat similar from 5 years prior like a blind rider where the driver had not made sure that the rider saw the van or the MetroAccess vehicle. So, it was on the front pages a lot and Mary said to me “you know – we need a public forum” so we organized my very first meeting as Chair, we got approved a resolution – it was either unanimous or one abstention by a member of the Accessibility Advisory Committee. And the resolution was simply “we will hold a forum on MetroAccess”. The Chair of the Metro Board at the time was very very nervous about this and at one point she said to me on the phone – she called me up and we had literally 8 conversations in the first 10 days that I was serving as Chair – and she said to me that she and the Board would forbid the RAC from holding a forum. Ultimately, because I stood my ground on that, what she did was she established – what she was going to do anyway – at that point there was so much negative press she established – the board established – a MetroAccess ad-hoc committee. And I was co-Chair of that committee or vice-chair with the immediate past Chair of the WMATA Board, Dana Kauffman who’s a superb superb guy. That has not happened since then where a member of the RAC has served with high leadership or important leadership integrated with the agency in policy making or operations where there’d be discussion between WMATA and riders or that the discussion included all those parties and we also made sure that there were riders from MetroAccess that were on that committee. Improvements were definitely made – substantial improvements – whether it’s gone down hill again or whether it just wasn’t enough, but certainly at that time there were significant improvements made.
[F] I follow the MetroAccess stuff fairly closely. I used to go to the meetings all the time. It’s incredibly important work. So that’s amazing you guys were able to accomplish that.
[D] And if I could add: at the time staff leadership at the agency said to me “well, you know what we should really do – we shouldn’t have a forum cause you have someone sitting with a microphone testifying at a table and you have a panel listening to that and it will get adversarial” and they wanted instead to have roundtables of conversations and discussions. And I was not against that – I was absolutely against eliminating the public forum aspect. And the public forum is what gave force and energy – with television cameras and all – where you had person after person who was yelling and screaming out of personal anguish and passion over their experience and that is what lead the agency to make changes. And one last part of that is that I remember the Chair said to me on the phone “oh, did you see the headline from the Washington Post today? The editorial?” The editorial headline was “Metro’s Cruelty” about MetroAccess. And I thought it was constructive and needed. It was a catalyst for change but they were hammered over the head with it. Be that as it may we made some progress.
[F] Sadly that’s the reality that people were living that needed to be brought into the light. So good for you guys. You clearly have a past with the RAC. Have you been keeping up with the RAC these days and what do you think of it now?
[D] A little bit here and there I have been. Not substantially but I think I have been observing it enough to get a feel for how it has changed over the years and also talking to former members of the RAC as well. The RAC lost it’s standing. When the WMATA Board of Directors first established the RAC when the Sierra Club was leading the campaign called – it was the 10 step program for Metro accountability, we couldn’t think of 2 extra steps, and the cornerstone for it was establishing the RAC and at one point the staff of the agency proposed that the staff person would be appointed directly by the General Manager with zero input – zero input – by the RAC. The staff liaison. And that was a problem for us. We wanted to ensure there was input. In fact I chaired the committee that did the interviewing for the selection of staff at that time. But when that happened after months and months and months of humongous amount of hours – it was a campaign it was meeting with staff weekly. We came out against the proposal. Dana Kauffman, then chair, changed the proposal because he agreed that – the other provision that was so awful that RAC members shall not speak to staff. Shall not speak to staff. At least not on issues. It’s documented. And we said you know we want to improve things, you know there might be a difficult conversation here and there but – and Dana Kauffman agreed with that and he kinda thought it was silly to not allow that. We opposed the proposal as part of a campaign to increase the public standing of the inception of the RAC. 934 or so applicants filling out a few pages of essay questions. I don’t know if they get 5 or 10 or 20 applicants each year ever since – from 934. Granted it was the first year so it’s a newer shiny thing but they lost their standing they did not ensure that they had public standing so they could have influence. They’ve lost it.
[F] Yeah – I think that was one of my biggest complaints while I was serving is that this seems like almost the same problem as the OIG problem at WMATA. That the Riders’ Advisory Council should be maybe a 3rd party at WMATA but sponsored by WMATA. You know, if you need meeting space we’ll take care of it. If you want to go out to a station we’ll take care it. But they always felt like they were part of WMATA. And like rules and regulations were imposed on you to prevent you from ever getting work done. Would you agree with that?
[D] I think it’s OK to be part of the agency but a part of the agency with public standing. And the agency has emasculated the RAC over the years and the RAC members, with all do respect to them and I know they’re dedicated members of the RAC, but they’ve allowed that to happen. And in fairness to them I think there’s – again with all do respect to them – there’s a lack of awareness on their part of how far can they go? There’s a leash on them and they’re allowing that to restrict their speech and their standing and ultimately their influence. What happened with the establishment of the public forum on MetroAccess when the then Chair of the Metro Board said to me “we forbid you, we’re not going to allow you” and I said well we’re going to do it. Ultimately what she did was she insured that there were – because there are 16000 riders – 16000 flyers if not once possibly twice that we wrote were handed out on seats throughout the week or so. And we had 150 people – we had 2 forums, it was like 3:00 to 4:30 and 7:00 to 8:30 or whatever – and in between we had the roundtable discussions. But we had high turnout – certainly those flyers helped substantially. They were dragging their feet to allow it to happen but ultimately because there was – this issue was in the public light and it was a wave that I intentionally rode to use it as an issue to gain more influence with the agency. And it worked. And the RAC members need to be more creative and assertive in seeking the opportunity to “I have something to say here”.
[F] Here at the end of 2017 – do you feel like the RAC needs to be improved or do you feel like we need a 3rd party riders’ advisory council like a riders’ union or something entirely different that I haven’t even thought of yet?
[D] Oh, I think it’s both. Both have value – both are needed. At this point the utility of the Riders’ Advisory Council, I’m sorry to say it because I know people who are on there are conscientious and they have good intentions and there’s no “but” on that, there’s no asterisk. There is limited utility to how the RAC is currently operating because they don’t have a proactive agenda. So, but the advantage that I do want to identify of having a Riders’ Advisory Council: originally the Sierra Club had supported the appointment of members of the RAC by the appointing jurisdictions – DC, Virginia, and Maryland whether it’s county by county, etc in Maryland and Virginia. And in retrospect our fear of being appointed by the members of the WMATA Board itself – it was not only less of a concern as it unfolded but there are advantages and the advantage is they are the decision makers and if they know you well enough or they approve your appointment you have access. You have at least somewhat of a relationship with them – or at least the opportunity for a relationship that they’re not taking advantage of. It has to work on both sides by the members of the Board of Directors and by the RAC but with that appointment there’s at least some link between that and you’re able, with some string – there are some constrictions on that you can’t bite the hand that feeds you too hard otherwise you won’t get reappointed or do that and maybe you have an impact. But if you want to continue serving on the RAC and influence the members of the Board of Directors there’s some combination – I call it, many do, “inside outside strategy”, and the RAC has become inside. You asked about an outside – an independent rider’s effort, whether it’s a union or a rider’s organization. That’s absolutely needed. For one they have the opportunity to be more independent than the board member appointed Riders’ Advisory council. They can be edgier and they might have – they could maybe develop more resources. They’ll be scrappier and they have to be out there – outside. And they also still need to be, if you will, hang their jacket on the hook on the back of the door in the conference room at WMATA Headquarters. So they can sit down with the leaders to influence them cause they’re the ones that make the decisions. Having said that – WMATA is, in some ways, it’s own worse enemy. Leaders throughout the region – political, the mayors, and chairs of the legislative bodies, Board of Supervisors, etc throughout the region, and I mean this generally – not each and every single one and not each and every year in WMATA’s existence – they have failed. Absolutely failed to provide sufficient funding for the agency to ensure that it can do a better job. I know that the culture of WMATA has a lot of problems and if you get more money and you hire more staff they’ll make more errors, they’ll make more mistakes and they also will more money to do good. You can’t buy a wheel – a new tire for a bus – if you don’t have enough money. You don’t have enough safety inspectors or training for safety inspectors, holding accountable the safety inspectors. They take shortcuts. So going back to why the RAC was established in the first place – when Sierra Club found “you know we’re having trouble among our own members even finding support for dedicated funding” “ah, they’ll screw it up anyway” – well, they will. But they’ll also do more good things. It’s not one or the other. It’s absolutely critical. The more the jurisdictions, and they’re seriously at fault – they are absolutely irresponsible – the more that they have held back in funding of WMATA has more greatly caused deterioration of the agency. One thing that past leaders of WMATA have failed at is to make the case in the following way: we’re doing OK but there are deficiencies and we need more money. Instead what they’ve said was “we need more money, oh we didn’t get it, we’re doing the best we can”. And what that allowed – it papered over the fact that no – we need more money, or the agency needs more money. So there’s a need for an independent group to be out there raising their voice to “hey, WMATA, you have to do this to improve”. You don’t have enough money? Well, you’re right – we’re going to advocate for more money as well. In politics – in the United States Congress the House of Representatives the District Office Constituence Service is described as the life blood of the member of Congress – that Representative. And where that’s relevant is customer service is terrible. They have failed to beef it up. They have failed to instill in the staff of customer service the standing themselves. It’s another area of people more standing so that they can go to someone and say “well, wait a second, we’re not serving the public well enough in this, isn’t that true?”. Says the customer service to someone at the agency. They’re not doing that because they’re not allowed to. And because of that the WMATA over the years has so terribly failed to develop a constituency that believe in the need for dedicated funding.
[F] My final question, and you may have already answered it so you can say “see above” if you want – but I ask everyone: What’s wrong with Metro and how do we fix WMATA?
[D] It needs more money. It needs creative bold leadership. I think Jack Evans as Chair and Paul Wiedefeld have established a new kind of leadership at the agency. I of course don’t agree with everything that they’ve done and how they’ve done it but they have forced the issue to come to the surface – they need more money and they need to shape up. I’m supportive of unions in the sense that I want to see protections so that there’s not nepotism or nefarious firing of staff because they’re a whistle blower for example and health and safety – a union can help in that. But 689 has not been helpful. They have bashed the agency themselves so much they can’t – they’re unable to turn around and then say “we deserve more money because we’re doing…” well they say that the agency is doing such a terrible job – they don’t get that they’re hurting themselves and the public at the same time in addition to their “enemies” in management. But it’s all about money and good leadership.
[F] Dennis, you’re a wealth of information. I know I can always come to you to find out what’s really going on and how we got where we are. I really appreciate your time today, thanks Dennis.
[D] Glad to be part of the dialogue.
[end interview audio]
Colin Reusch is a health policy analyst who originally hails from Kentucky and has been a daily Metro rider since 2010. Prior to moving into DC proper Colin was a disgruntled Blue Line rider dealing with 12 minute rush hour headways on the the Blue Line during his commute from Alexandria. Colin joined the RAC in part to give a voice to Blue Line riders and others impacted by Metro’s deteriorating service. He and his wife currently reside in Northeast DC and commute by way of the Red, Yellow, and Green lines from the Fort Totten Metro station.
I sat down with Colin near the Brookland station this week to talk about the current state of the RAC…
[begin interview audio]
[FixWMATA] I’m here with Colin Reusch who is currently a member of the Riders’ Advisory Council. Thanks for sitting down with me, Colin.
[Colin] Sure, happy to be here.
[F] When did you begin serving on the RAC and which jurisdiction do you represent?
[C] Began serving on the RAC just about 2 years ago and I’m technically an at-large member but I live in DC.
[F] OK, so you represent everybody?
[C] Right. That is correct.
[F] Can you name something the RAC has accomplished for the riders during your time there?
[C] I mean, you know – that’s tough. I think right as I came on the RAC was finishing up with the policy to allow riders to exit the system within 15 minutes of entering free of charge or effectively free of charge so I mean that’s probably the biggest thing. Since I’ve been here we’ve tried to do a lot of information gathering from WMATA staff and management to better understand the policies on the books but that can often times be a challenge. We’re currently in the process of developing some recommendations for improving the in-service communications namely on the rail system.
[F] OK, and for full disclosure I started on the RAC with you. Clearly you’ve outlasted me. And I remember one of the things that you guys were working on – or we were working on – was getting a social media presence. I hear there might be a Facebook now and eventually a Twitter – how’s that going?
[C] There is in fact a Facebook. I think there’s been a Facebook page for close to a year now. There has been a Twitter handle that has been secured as I understand it. One of the other committees is heading up that effort. As far as the Facebook page – I think it has been good in terms of basic engagement and education of riders but I think there’s still a lot more to be done. Often times we get complaints from riders who think the Riders’ Advisory Council is in fact WMATA, so you know – that’s an ongoing challenge for us.
[F] You guys are not the Customer Service department. What’s holding the RAC back from being more productive? What needs to change so you guys can get more done for riders?
[C] So I think the biggest obstacle for the RAC is the fact that we don’t have a direct line of information with WMATA staff. I think that’s improved but it’s still a challenge. Like I said getting basic information on what policies are on the books is really difficult and that makes it at times impossible to make well informed recommendations to the Board. I think we also need a more meaningful relationship with the Board itself so that we are actually well known to them and someone that they regularly look to for advice as opposed to simply an occasional sounding board for riders.
[F] How often do they come to you – staff or the board – for feedback on upcoming issues? I know recently a few things have kind of slipped through your fingers where the RAC wasn’t really asked about the things that affect riders at-large. How often do they ask and do you wish they did that more?
[C] Really depends on the issue. So I will say that we have had more visits from board members and staff this year than my first year at the RAC. Sometimes that means that the board members are there to make some basic comments and observe. Other times they’re there to discuss current issues. Same with staff. However I would say my biggest gripe is the fact that when we are asked explicitly for input it’s often on things that don’t feel super important. So for example we were recently asked for what we would like to see in the 8000 series cars which are cars that have not yet been acquired but will proceed the latest 7000 series cars. And you know – we’re not experts on the manufacture of train cars. We can provide some basic information on what riders want in terms of comfort and access but the issues that really concern riders are things that impact the reliability and frequency of service. Things that impact the affordability of service. And just as an example WMATA recently announced a policy change whereby riders would no longer be able to exit the system with a negative balance – something that’s long been available and honestly is a convenience and we were never asked about that let alone even just informed about it ahead of time. So I think that’s something we often see is policies come through without really any heads-up from staff or the board and I think that’s problematic if we are truly an entity that the board values for it’s input and advice.
[F] There’s a really find line that the RAC rides. On one side you are not WMATA’s customer service – you are not the complaint department. But on the other side you really are the official and only voice of the ridership. So you have to get people to come to you and give you opinion so that you can provide opinions on things like the 8000 series and SmarTrip going negative, that kind of thing. If you were to encourage people to come to the RAC meetings what would you ask them to bring with them? What kind of message or what kind of request are you guys looking for?
[C] So, I think it’s great to hear from riders in terms of their day to day complaints however what we really need to hear from riders are specifically what specifically would you like to see changed? We could probably be doing a better job of outreach to garner that type of input but I think we’re also in a situation where this system has been in such a bad place for so long that so many riders are fed up that when we do get input – whether it’s via Facebook or email or in person – it’s often times from riders that are outraged. And for good reason. But at the same time that doesn’t always translate into constructive recommendations.
[F] One thing that I learned very quickly during my time on the RAC is that the RAC Chair kinda holds a lot of power and really sets the tone of how the RAC will operate during the time there. If you were the Chair now how would you change the RAC to accomplish more for the ridership?
[C] Well first of all I would say I have no interest in being the chair of the RAC so…
[F] Why not? Why not?
[C] That’s not a position I want to hold. I’ve got plenty of other responsibilities in my life. I’m not really interested in arm-chair quarterbacking the RAC. I actually think that our Chair now, Katherine, is great in terms of allowing the individual members and the committees to have flexibility allowing them to do what they need to do to get information from staff, to contact board members themselves. I think in previous iterations of the RAC there was much more structure imposed on those communications which isn’t to say that the RAC Chair doesn’t still have final say but I think she’s much more willing to defer to the individual members as to what they think the RAC’s agenda should be.
[F] Your term is up – are you 2 year or 4 year?
[C] I think my term is 1 year.
[F] So your term was up and you stayed on, is that right?
[C] That’s correct.
[F] I’m guessing you’re in it for a while? Because some people get in there and realize the RAC is not what they thought it was going to be. They thought it was going to be more of a focus group instead of trying to accomplish things for riders. I’ve seen people come and go so that’s an important question: you’re planning on staying?
[C] I don’t know. I’m a non-committal person in general. We’ll see. I’ll evaluate that decision when it comes time.
[F] Keep them guessing. There you go. Final question on the RAC itself: you mentioned I’ll say some discomfort from time to time between the RAC and WMATA staff as far as getting things done – maybe being held back. What needs to change – should the RAC move to more of the OIG model where they’re a part of WMATA but separate from WMATA?
[C] I actually think that that would be ideal. But that also raises the question of sort of support for the RAC even in terms of basic financial support. I think if the RAC is to be truly independent or some iteration of the RAC is to be truly independent then that requires probably independent resources to support it. Short of that I think there probably needs to be a conversation with the Board about what they really see as the value and the role of this body and if they are not interested in engaging in a meaningful way then perhaps we should move on and establish an independent body somehow.
[F] Are you reading my mind? Because my next question is: do you think an independent rider’s union could make a difference – maybe fill in some gaps that the RAC doesn’t have the latitude to handle – and what would an independent rider’s group look like right now?
[C] I mean – you’re the guy who tried to start one. I do think that it would be good to have an independent representative body for riders. I think we’ve seen in other cities that that’s something that can have an impact if it’s organized well, if it’s well supported and if they have the ability to develop compelling messages to local leaders including the WMATA Board but also local politicians honestly because those are the folks that are really going to be able to put pressure on WMATA.
[F] Question I ask everyone, and you can either answer this as – well first of all I can’t say you are a representative of the RAC, you are a member of the RAC but you do not represent the RAC. I remember that got drilled into my head really fine by staff is that you are allowed to speak your mind but not represent the RAC, is that right?
[C] That’s correct and I’ve probably crossed that line a few times in the past.
[F] I think I might have as well. Colin, from your point of view: what’s wrong with Metro and how do we fix WMATA?
[C] Woo! That’s a big question. I’ve probably tweeted about this a number of times in recent months I think that despite having what I would say is a much improved leadership for WMATA in the shape of a new General Manager who I think has really tried to turn things around. This is a huge ship. It’s got a lot of cultural problems in the way of complacency, in the way of lack of accountability from top to bottom. I think certainly funding is an important thing that WMATA needs at this point in the game. We’ve let it slip and there’s just no question that more money needs to be infused in the system to turn it around. However, we also need accountability – so whether that comes in the form of new performance metrics that management and front-line employees are held to or some other monumental shift in the culture of the organization I fear that we’re going to continue to slide. I think even in the wake of huge changes like SafeTrack and efforts to turn the system around we’ve seen time and time again that repairs aren’t being done in the manner that they’re supposed to be done or records are falsified and it’s this continuous slide I think in the eyes of riders and they continue to lose credibility, to lose rider trust, meanwhile the system is losing money and ridership and it’s really in this sort of financial death spiral so I do hope that we can figure out a way to adequately fund the system long term but without some internal controls to prevent the types of issues we’ve seen in the past I’m not sure that’s sufficient.
[F] I’ve always said that WMATA’s like a bucket that has several holes in the bottom. And you can assign faces and names to those holes if you want – but there’s holes in the bucket and yes, we need to fill the bucket – we need to fund Metro but until we plug some of those holes you’re really just throwing water that’s coming out the other side.
[C] Yeah, I also think a huge issue is transparency. Despite being a public agency this is an organization that continues, unfortunately, to fight tooth and nail to prevent information from coming to light about it’s shortcomings. Just the latest thing is these diesel buses that had to be replaced by coach buses – that was a known issue, it was an issue that was ignored and here were are probably throwing good money after bad in order to rent private coach buses in order to get people to and from work. It’s just something that never should have happened.
[F] OK, Colin – I appreciate your time, thank you so much for sitting down with me.
[end interview audio]
Before we wrap up this episode I wanted to say a couple things about the Riders’ Advisory Council. During my time on the RAC I saw what the RAC really is: window dressing. A checkbox the Board of Directors uses from time to time to be able to say “yes, we ran that by the ridership”. Staff uses the RAC in a similar way. They make presentations to get feedback from the RAC once a project is done, rarely including the RAC in the process, instead using them as a focus group once they’ve already decided what’s going to happen and have set plans in motion.
There are 2 huge things holding the RAC back in my opinion:
First, the way the WMATA staff and Board of Directors interact with the RAC. The RAC is treated like a problem instead of a solution. Instead of working WITH the RAC staff works against the RAC. Often times the RAC will request something from staff only to be rejected – repeatedly. When I was on the RAC I asked for 2 things:
1 – to be able to setup a table or presence at the stations in my jurisdiction, DC, so I and other RAC members could reach out to the ridership. I wanted to make sure the riders knew we existed and also get their opinion on issues facing the WMATA ridership so I could provide better feedback to staff and the Board. I was told it was a security issue to have us holding up the flow of traffic at stations. After months and months of asking I eventually gave up on this request – something staff knew would happen.
2 – I wanted the RAC to have a presence on social media. The RAC wasn’t on Facebook or Twitter and while all of the Metro ridership isn’t on those 2 platforms a very large portion is. I didn’t even want the RAC to have a contentious presence there – just a place to post about our meetings and things we were working on. This issue got turned down by Assistant General Manager Lynn Bowersox – as though it was even her place to approve this in the first place. The RAC has since taken MANY months to wordsmith policies on how a Facebook account would work and eventually a Twitter account would work. This is how you get things past WMATA staff – you hammer them with it for MONTHS – even YEARS.
The second thing holding the RAC back is the RAC itself. There has always been members of the RAC who joined under an impression the RAC was something it isn’t supposed to be. These are people who never went to a RAC meeting prior to joining the RAC. They never got an orientation to the RAC after they were selected to join it. So they show up, talk about how crappy THEIR bus is or THEIR commute on the train. With 21 people representing millions of other riders each of them should be operating in a mindset that keeps the ENTIRE ridership in mind – not their personal commute issue. Many of these members just can’t think in those broad terms and they waste a seat on the Council.
The RAC needs a wake-up call and it’s going to take members like Colin and it’s going to take staff who see the RAC as part of the process, not part of the problem, to achieve that wake-up call. Until this happens riders are going to have to pick up the slack by showing up to public forums and voicing their concern. It’s going to take riders emailing people at WMATA and holding them accountable when things in their area of Metro aren’t done well. We’re going to have to show up to RAC meetings and give public comment and hold their feet to the fire. We have to work overtime to pick up the slack from the RAC until the RAC either regroups to better serve riders or they decide the experiment is over and disband.
I hope you’ll join me again next time. Until then take care of yourself and your fellow rider – we’re all in this together!
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