DC Metro Governance: What Does It Mean? (And Why Should I Care?)

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(Washington, DC -- David Schultz, WAMU) I know, I know -- the makeup of a local transit authority's board of directors is not exactly the sexiest topic, especially not at a time when most people are thinking of turkey, football or some weird combination of the two.

But while this may seem like something only a wonk could love, there's actually a sneaky political power play in the works here that could shift the balance of influence in the D.C. region and fundamentally alter the way Metro operates.

Almost no one is happy with the way this Board operates right now. Each jurisdiction on the Board -- D.C., Maryland, and Virginia -- has veto power over the other two and this has turned many Metro Board meetings into horse trading sessions. Also, the Board is made up of an uneasy mixture of career transit experts (who are often accused of micromanaging), and local politicians (who often use their status on the Board for grandstanding).

A recent study released by local government and business officials here in D.C. seeks to change this. It recommends -- among many other things -- eliminating the veto rule and changing the way Board members get appointed.

Both of those recommendations have been met with some dismay here in the Nation's Capital.

First the veto rule: its main practitioner, Metro Board member and D.C. Councilman Jim Graham, says keeping it is vital because, without a veto, Maryland and Virginia's suburban interests would overpower the urban needs of the District. But D.C.'s mayor-elect, Vincent Gray, has signaled his support for the study, so Graham may be out on his own on this one.

The proposal to change the appointment process has been even more controversial, especially in Virginia. Currently, Virginia's four Metro Board members are appointed by a local transit commission based out of the D.C. suburbs. The business/government study recommends changing that so Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell (R) can appoint at least some of the state's delegation -- a recommendation he wholeheartedly supports.

Local transit advocates here in D.C. -- as well as (mostly Democratic) officials in Northern Virginia -- say it makes no sense for someone whose office is almost 100 miles from the nearest Metro station to be more involved in Metro's operations. On the one hand, it seems intuitive that local officials should have control over a local transit system. But, the state of Virginia contributes a sizable amount of money to Metro's annual budget, so it also seems intuitive that McDonnell should have some say over how that money is spent.

Ultimately, this may come down to a throw-the-baby-out-with-the-bathwater mentality. Metro is so dysfunctional, its operations so unsatisfying to so many people, that any proposed changes to the status quo will likely be embraced. D.C. and Northern Virginia will fight these changes, because they would weaken the two jurisdictions' respective power in the region. But right now, opposing change at Metro -- any kind of change -- is a stance that will not win you very many friends.