City Desk

WMATA Scolds Form Advocacy Group

Look out, WMATA. One of your most persistent Twitter scolds created a lobbying group — even though he won't be around to lead it.

Chris Barnes, the watchdog behind the FixWMATA Twitter account and blog, co-founded the Metropolitan Transit Advocacy Group this month, an advocacy organization that promises to be even more persistent reminder of everything WMATA is doing wrong. Barnes announced today he is leaving D.C. for the Lone Star State, closing his blog and pulling out of MetroTAG effective immediately.

But he promises concerned commuters the group will go on. "The group is not 1 person. I, specifically, was not 'the group'. There are very talented and passionate people ready and willing to take the helm and reach out to riders of WMATA and other local transit systems long after I'm gone," Barnes wrote in an email.

Barnes launched FixWMATA in 2010 to pester WMATA about cars with broken air conditioning, and he continued to tweet Metrorail concerns to his 4,130 followers. But his account was blocked by the official WMATA Twitter in May, following a train fire in Silver Spring. Inspired by the Straphangers Campaign, a similar group in New York, Barnes, along with fellow Silver Spring resident Kurt Raschke, created MetroTAG, a group WMATA may not be able to ignore as easily.

MetroTAG spokesperson Graham Jenkins says Twitter brought the group’s founders and many of its supporters together, but he says they’ll go beyond social media to lobby WMATA and raise awareness because not every D.C. resident is equipped with high-speed Internet and a smartphone. After reaching out to riders and choosing what issues to focus on, the group will create campaigns to lobby WMATA online, through the media, and at public meetings. (Jenkins says between 50 and 100 riders have expressed interest in joining MetroTAG.)

The group hopes to mount campaigns that will catch the attention of Metro’s leadership. The Metro Board of Directors that supervises WMATA has representatives from the governments of D.C., Maryland, and Virginia, plus federal government input that was added after the infamous 2009 Red Line crash. With so many different jurisdictions in charge, it's hard to hold any of them accountable, Jenkins says.

One reason: The Metro board has closed-door meetings with no place for public comment. “What we see is a lack of true rider representation with any of the official bodies,” Jenkins says. “Part of the problem with WMATA, as it stands, is no one is beholden to anyone.”

WMATA would not comment specifically on MetroTAG's creation, but Morgan Dye, a WMATA spokes, wrote in an email: "The most efficient way for riders to voice their concerns are through our existing Customer Service channels."

There is a WMATA-created Riders Advisory Council, which holds public meetings, but MetroTAG has taken a clear stance on its website that the group is "a waste of time and energy."

Barnes and Raschke claim the RAC is not representative of the hundreds of thousands of people who use Metro daily and that it makes little outreach effort.

RAC member Carol Carter Walker says the 21-member council is not meant to represent a rider jurisdiction, but rather serve as representative riders who use Metro varying amounts and for different reasons. She says she welcomes any group that wants to improve transit, and she won't rule out future collaborations with MetroTAG.

Walker does admit that the RAC needs to work out getting more public input. "There's no question about that," she says. "We need to do a better job of being more accessible and letting people know that we exist." The RAC has been working to coordinate "listening sessions" to meet with riders in D.C., Maryland and Virginia.

MetroTAG's creation comes as WMATA is preparing to roll out new Series-7000 cars and is in the midst of Silver Line construction. But Jenkins says other repairs have been slow. Some intercoms have been broken for years, wait times are “pretty deplorable,” and escalator and elevator fixes seem never-ending. Automatic train operation has not been restored since the 2009 crash, so operators are driving the trains themselves,which makes for a jerkier ride.

And while it applauds the attempt to fix what’s broken, MetroTAG would like to see WMATA expand coverage and maximize capacity. “There’s sort of a lacking sense of vision,” Jenkins says.

 

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