On leaving the WMATA Riders' Advisory Council

It pains me to have had to bid adeiu to the WMATA Riders' Advisory Council. At last week’s WMATA Board meeting, Chair Paul Smedberg elected to terminate my service after a single two year term. I regret it very much.

What follows below is an email I sent to members of the Arlington County Board on Sunday. As I doubt I’ll actually get a reply, I’ve decided to just post it here as it was an attempt to summarize why the RAC is important and more necessary than ever.

Dear Board Chair De Ferranti and Board Members Cristol, Garvey, and Karantonis:

I am writing to you all as the now former Chair of WMATA’s Riders' Advisory Council (RAC).

In case you all are unfamiliar, the RAC exists to represent the interest of WMATA riders across the region, reporting directly to WMATA’s Board of Directors. I applied to join the RAC in December of 2018, shortly after the Board attempted to eliminate it. The Board appointed me in February of 2019. I was elected to serve as Virginia’s Vice-Chair in March of 2019.

As the child of a transit planner, my dad showed me how transit policy disproportionately affects lower-income families for better or worse. As director of planning at a municipal transit agency and later as a consultant working to establish community transit systems in rural and semi-rural Midwestern cities, he took the public input process seriously. I did more of my homework in community meetings and city council hearings than I did at home. I tried to bring the same determination to do right by riders (and in turn benefit WMATA) when I joined the RAC.

Instead of eliminating the RAC, the Board agreed to a series of reforms which included the appointment of a Board member to strengthen the dialog between the two. Your colleague and former WMATA (and NVTC) board member Christian Dorsey ‘served’ as first and to-date only Board Liaison. I place ‘served’ in quotation marks because he never attended a RAC meeting in person and after a few months of calling into our meetings and speaking for a few minutes before disconnecting the call ceased any further participation. Since June of 2019, the RAC had only one meaningful exchange with any board members: a meeting with Chair Smedberg in September of 2019.

During my term on the RAC and service as the Vice-Chair and Chair, I made it a priority to build on the work done by my predecessors to raise the RAC’s profile and make it an active participant in regional discussions about WMATA and transit policy. Lacking the promised guidance from the Board and determined to do right by the riders we represent, what choice did we have?

As the pandemic has raged on, it has become evermore clear how necessary a vocal, thoughtful, and diverse rider body is. Listening to essential workers I have come to see weekly, their frustration and fear is plain. WMATA has now passed four FY21 budgets and their failure to clearly communicate what changes each budget involved and when it takes effect has left them scrambling. People reliant on WMATA to get them from e.g., Suitland (Prince George’s County) to Virginia Square to work high risk hourly jobs for appallingly low wages in the midst of a uncontrolled global pandemic deserve far better.

Neither my former RAC colleague (and leading transit policy expert) Dr. Katherine Kortum or I were given a reason for why we were not reappointed to the RAC (see these stories from The Post or WAMU/DCist). I proudly stand behind every action I took and every statement I made. My only regret that WMATA’s Board and Staff were unwilling to engage with the same level of good faith that I attempted to engage them with. As Arlington’s elected leaders and members of the NVTC, I respectfully ask that you work with your colleague Paul Smedberg to establish meaningful powers for the RAC to solicit feedback from riders in semi-official ways (e.g., a booth near a Metrorail station entrance or convene a public listening session as has been done in the past) and the ability to request (and receive) written responses from WMATA staff on specific matters. We should not need to discuss filing a PARP (ie., FOIA) request to obtain what should already be public information.

Prior to the pandemic, WMATA had made encouraging progress reversing its ridership decline. But it had only achieved these gains in spite of itself. This region deserves so much better.

very sincerely yours,