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Peter’s Take: Fixing Metro

peter_rousselot_2014-12-27_for_facebookPeter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

Last week, Mark Kelly, my fellow columnist at ARLnow.com, and David Alpert over at Greater Greater Washington each posted a column about fixing Metro. Both arrived at essentially this conclusion:   

Metro can’t be fixed unless its Board and senior management have sufficient freedom to hire and fire.

Discussion

I agree with both David and Mark.

David framed the issue as Metro’s badly needing a culture change:

“Metro’s culture, clearly, is lacking. Many employees, whether front-line or managers, don’t take responsibilities seriously. If employees falsify reports, and their managers encourage them to, and other departments hang up on them without solving a problem, something is very wrong not just with a few people or a department, but a culture.”

Mark focused on the need for Metro to have sufficient flexibility under its union contract:

“The union contract has long appeared to be a substantial impediment to Metro’s ability to move forward. Not only has the union locked in pay scales and overtime provisions, but also makes it extremely difficult to make necessary workforce adjustments as Metro faces ongoing financial strain. Or in this case, seemingly is making it next to impossible to fire employees for cause.”

Metro’s culture can’t be changed without sufficient freedom to hire and fire

Metro’s senior management has no hope of changing Metro’s culture without sufficient freedom to hire and fire its unionized workforce. The most important union in this case is Local 689 of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU). “ATU Local 689 covers 8,576 workers, or about 82 percent of the unionized workforce, including train operators, maintenance crews, and other employees.”

Metro’s contract with ATU Local 689 is currently being re-negotiated. If the ultimate outcome of these negotiations is a voluntary agreement between management and ATU Local 689 that gives Metro’s senior management sufficient freedom to hire and fire, then there will be a reasonable prospect that Metro’s culture can be changed. These negotiations must not drag out too long.

Metro shouldn’t get a new dedicated revenue stream without first demonstrating that it has changed its culture

Metro critically needs to get a new dedicated revenue stream sufficiently large to enable it to:

  • replace its existing capital assets at the end of their useful lives, and
  • gradually expand the Metro system over the coming decades.

A dedicated revenue stream is usually defined as money that flows from a source–like an earmarked sales or gas tax–that isn’t subject to an annual appropriations process.

Metro is the only major transit system in the United States without such a dedicated revenue stream. While the need for such a revenue stream is critical, this new revenue cannot be provided without:

  • unanimous agreement by Virginia, Maryland and DC on what that new funding source is–and the specific terms and conditions under which funding will be provided, plus
  • federal government approval of that tri-jurisdictional compact.

It is both imprudent and politically impossible for such agreements and approvals to occur without a prior demonstration by Metro that it has changed its culture sufficiently to justify this substantial new investment.

Conclusion

Metro can be fixed if it is able to change its culture enough and in time. If it can’t, the three jurisdictions and the federal government will have to agree upon and enable a new organization to operate this vital transit system.

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