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Posted at 12:24 PM ET, 06/18/2010

McDonnell makes case for rider seats on Metro board

By David Alpert

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell is trying to take some of Virginia's WMATA board seats away from the Northern Virginia counties that appoint them, and is threatening to derail federal funding for safety-related improvements unless he gets his way.

McDonnell's main argument is that the state pays about half of Virginia's share for the transit system, and therefore he should appoint two of the members. However, "half" is stretching things a lot and using some funny math. More important, if we accept the notion that whoever pays the bills ought to appoint the members of the WMATA board, riders should be electing almost half the board themselves.

And why not? Much of the criticism of the board is that members look out for the interests of the local governments that appoint them, which sometimes align with riders' interests and sometimes don't. According to a Transportation Research Board report, a number of U.S. cities, including Denver and Salem, Ore., allow voters to elect all their transit board members, while others elect a portion.

Michael Perkins analyzed the fiscal 2009 budget and computed that if board seats were apportioned based on contributions to the capital and operating budget, riders would get about 42 percent of the seats. That number has probably increased with the recent fare hike.

Right now, the board has 14 members and is supposed to grow to 16, so about two elected representatives from each of Virginia, Maryland and D.C. would do nicely, plus the federal government could select a rider representative or two for its unfilled appointments.

Meanwhile, the McDonnell administration's calculation that the state pays half of Virginia's WMATA costs omits several key facts. First, it includes the 2 percent gas tax add-on that comes directly from Northern Virginia counties for transit. It also counts all money that goes to Metro based on a formula set by the legislature. Over time, Northern Virginia has negotiated to have some of its formula money go to Metro.

The state isn't really paying so much as acting as the banker. It's like President Obama decreeing that since most transportation money is federal, he's now going to appoint the state secretary of transportation in all 50 states plus D.C. — as well as the state secretary of education and most other state officials. That's just not how it works.

Most of all, McDonnell's calculations also completely discount all the money paid by riders. Virginians who ride Metrorail and Metrobus are putting in plenty of their own money. At least right now they have some elected officials who respond to their concerns representing them on the WMATA board.

Maybe those Northern Virginia riders should get to elect two representatives instead of McDonnell appointing them. If we follow McDonnell's own logic, they have a better claim. Otherwise, let's leave the local officials in charge.

David Alpert is founder and editor of Greater Greater Washington. The Local Blog Network is a group of bloggers from around the D.C. region who have agreed to make regular contributions to All Opinions Are Local.

By David Alpert  | June 18, 2010; 12:24 PM ET
Categories:  HotTopic, Local blog network, Metro, transportation  
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If it wasn't for Northern Virginia tax money, this state would be Arkansas. McDonnell better not bite the hand...

Posted by: Please_Fix_VAs_Roads | June 18, 2010 2:28 PM | Report abuse

For God sake no. Most riders are government workers getting federal government tax breaks, so who really "contributes" that money? I think the federal government.

As soon as the riders get a directly elected board seat in DC, the position is going to be taken over by transit wackos, Unions or well funded special interests. No real advantage.

As a district resident, I do think that DC should lose it's veto, and the DC board member should not be a DC City Councilman. Conflict of interest between budgetary priorities.

Posted by: FormerMCPSStudent | June 18, 2010 3:43 PM | Report abuse

McDonnel is a dope so you can count on him being wrong.

Posted by: Falmouth1 | June 21, 2010 6:49 AM | Report abuse

With Metro having 10,000 employees (aka: voters), the politician loaded board is perfectly OK with bus and train operators making over $100K per year and with a pension system that bases benefits on base pay plus overtime. These are benefits unheard of with other transit systems and are the primary reason that metro does not have the capital dollars it needs - those dollars are wasted on above market pay and benefits for operational costs. Bringing in new leadership that knows Metro has a real structural operational cost problem can only benefit the system. Dollars wasted on above market compensation can be put into improving safety and REDUCING RATES. If Metro employees were only paid market value for their services, this last rate increase might have never happened. McDonnell is right in trying to get professionals instead of elected politicians on the board.

Posted by: RestonSteve | June 23, 2010 4:38 PM | Report abuse

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