Starting with the setting he chose for his inaugural address, Supervisor Dana Kauffman (D-Lee) made it clear that his term as chair of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority was going to be different. And that was going to apply especially to Metro customers.
"This system has been around for over a quarter of a century and the decision-making process hasn't changed. Now it's about to," Kauffman said sitting in his office at the Lee District Government Center on Franconia Road a day prior to his official installation.
Instead of the normal headquarters setting for the incoming chair to expound his vision for the year ahead, Kauffman chose to give his speech at Gallery Place Metro Station. "I got all sorts of reasons why it should not be done there — noise from trains, no microphones, lighting, even that riders would be walking through the ceremony," he said.
"But, that's the whole point I told them. We are the Metro Board. We should be where our service is very obvious. And, as far as the riders passing through, I am looking forward to that. I hope they stop and ask questions," Kauffman said.
After the fact he acknowledged that during his inaugural ceremonies on Thursday, Feb. 17, most of those riders were schoolchildren on an outing to see "Disney On Ice — Mickey and Minnie's Magical Journey" at the MCI Center.
"If I had been dressed as Mickey, then they would have been interested. I should have had a Mouseketeers cap with ears," he said.
HE OPENED his remarks last Thursday by explaining that he has been a Metro rider since he was a "graduate school intern in 1981... All told, by the time my chairmanship ends, I will have touched this authority in some form or fashion for 25 of my 48 years.
"I believe this experience gives me the standing to frankly assess where we are as an agency and where we need to go if we are to better serve our customers and the region."
He went on to establish the foundation of his chairman on two words: "choice and accountability." The first applied to the riders and the second to operations of the system.
"I believe we must recognize that the vast majority of our customers are customers by choice. We must acknowledge this ... and give our riders an active role in shaping the future of Metro service," Kauffman said.
To accomplish that he proposed establishing "Metro's first-ever Riders Advisory Committee." In Kauffman's view, "This action will give everyone the benefit of regular, formal feedback from actual customers who use our services."
He set a goal for having the committee fully functional by July 1. "I commit to you ... we will listen and that this will be the start of an ongoing dialogue with our customers," he said.
"We will initiate a public comment period at the start of each board meeting. This will be in place for our April board meeting," he said.
Each year, in his capacity as a Fairfax County supervisor, Kauffman holds a town meeting to hear from his constituents and to give them information on all phases of county government that impacts their daily lives. "We will also continue the town meeting concept wisely begun by my predecessor Robert Smith of Maryland," Kauffman said.
"In fact, I will work with my colleagues and staff to offer three town meetings in 2005: one in each state," he said. The first of these is to commence in April, according to Kauffman.
This was welcomed by Smith. "I'm very happy that Dana is taking over the chairmanship this year. During my tenure last year we found common ground on just about all matters. This made for a very smooth transition," he said.
OTHER ELEMENTS of his open "accountability" stance will include:
* Opening internal operations to include regular meeting material "and yes, even ourselves to the public."
* Beginning with the March board meeting, all board and committee meeting materials will be available, in advance, on the internet.
* June's board meeting will be accessible via simulcast.
* Beginning this spring all board members will be reachable over the web at BoardofDirectors@wmata.com.
"By presenting this package of initiatives, to involve our customers and let sunshine into the Jackson Graham Building, we are making a collective commitment to outreach, availability and accountability," Kauffman said.
"MY OBJECTIVE is to get the system back to basics: safe, clean and reliable. To do that we need to bring the riders back into the decision-making process," he said.
"Everyone at Metro, is committed to a back-to-basics approach at Metro," said Richard A. White, Metro's CEO and general manager.
"We are all working toward improved accountability, customer service, safety, reliability and cleanliness. The initiative outlined by Mr. Kauffman will focus on enhanced customer service and outreach by providing new ways for Metro managers to engage with customers," he said.
Kauffman also wants the federal government to pick up more of its share of the costs. "This January, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments in partnership with the Greater Washington Board of Trade and Federal City Council, completed an exhaustive study of dedicated funding ...," he said.
"We must make certain the region's policy makers don't ... go back to the status quo of funding Metro based on the lowest common denominator of member contributions and erratic fare increases," Kauffman said.
He noted that 47 percent of Metro's peak period riders are federal employees. "Some 300 agencies are located near a Metro station. Such proximity now ranks high in determining the location of future federal offices... the federal government is the single largest beneficiary of Metro," he said.
"It should be clear to everyone that we must forge an even stronger partnership with the federal government," Kauffman said. He also noted that during December "10,000 new riders chose ... to make Metro their preferred commuting option. That's the equivalent of the entire population of the City of Falls Church," Kauffman said.
"Governments at the federal, state and local levels need to come together to collectively address Metro's needs," said U.S. Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-11). Davis is chair of the Congressional committee that oversees transportation issues impacting the Washington Metropolitan area. WMATA is a primary element of that network.
"I have known Dana for many years and I'm certain he shares my commitment to ensuring a healthy, vibrant Metro system for our children and grandchildren. Addressing Metro's funding shortfall will be no small challenge. I'm glad one of Fairfax County's own will be partnering with me on this effort," Davis said.
In laying out the need for more rational long term financial stability, Kauffman said, "While this board and our funding partners acknowledge this continued growth and pulled together to realize a six-year, $3.3 billion "Metro Matters" funding agreement, it's only a short-term fix .... At best it offers us shelter for about three years."
Kauffman compared the present system to "a two-lane road carrying interstate traffic with no shoulders" to keep things moving when difficulty occurs. "The least little thing causes delays. We don't even have multiple tracks like other systems. What we've got is a starter Lionel train set," he said.
Emphasizing "choice" Kauffman said, "Folks, we really have a clear choice to make and we all will be held accountable for it. Metro literally holds our region together; now is the time for our region to come together for Metro."