Cost-Cutting Versus the Mad Biologist’s Fundamental Political Theorem: The D.C. Metro Edition

D.C.’s Mayor Muriel Bowser (for whom I voted) is one of the most confusing politicians I’ve ever seen. While I’m a D.C. native, I spent much of my life in the Northeast where there was a very simple political deal: politicians will hire the occasional idiot nephew at additional cost (and other small forms of chicanery) in return for things generally working (for most people much of the time). Ya dance with them that brung ‘ya. It’s not a perfect system, but one must be realistic about such things.

And then there’s Bowser (boldface mine):

One of the region’s largest labor unions is urging D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser to cancel her appointment of Corbett Price, a financial consultant with a history of battling labor, to Metro’s board of directors.

The president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 Jackie Jeter said Price, 65, will bring the wrong approach to a transit authority that is trying to fix both its finances and safety culture.

“He is known as a union-busting individual. He is known as a slash-and-burn individual and that is his history, not mine. I am not giving it to him. That is the history he has made through his time in the corporate world,” said Jeter in an interview with WAMU 88.5. The union represents about 8,000 Metro employees.

Bowser, who received the backing of most major labor unions during her candidacy, defended her selection and said she would not cancel Price’s appointment.

“Corbett Price is a well-respected business person who is going to bring that perspective to the Metro board. He has my full support,” Bowser said.

When a reporter raised Price’s anti-union reputation – which dates to the mid-1980s when he fired more than 600 workers at Prince George’s County’s Dimensions Healthcare System in an effort to make it profitable – Bowser said the focus should be on fixing Metro.

“I am concerned about the state of Metro. And that is what the people across this region are concerned about, and what they want to make sure is not only the board but staff and management at Metro are doing the right thing,” the mayor responded….

Price has described himself as a native Washingtonian. He is the chief executive of Quantix Health Capital, a private equity firm. Price donated $2,000 to Bowser’s mayoral campaign and $10,000 to her inaugural committee, according to records at the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance.

The Bowser administration has made it known that the new mayor prefers Metro hire a financial expert rather than a transit specialist as its next general manager. While Price will not run Metro – he will be one of 16 directors on the transit authority’s board – his selection reflects Bowser’s stance that Metro must get its financial house in order.

Price has no experience in transportation policy or running a transit agency, but that alone does not make him unusual on Metro’s board. Only one director, chairman Mort Downey, has worked inside a transit agency (the MTA in New York)….

“Corbett’s job on the Metro board, which is what all board members go there to do, is to make sure the authority is functioning in a fiscally responsible way, that the safety culture is being upheld, and that they provide oversight to the general manager. That is the job of the board,” Bowser said.

“I don’t hear too many people including the employees saying that things are going well at Metro,” she said. “In fact, what employees have told me is that they want the board to be a strong check on management.”

Let’s deal with the last part first–Price’s reputation is for cutting workers, not managers. It’s also ridiculous to think that Bowser, who served on the board, is serious about controlling management, as she never did while she was on the board. And maybe Price is a campaign contribution bundler, but being bought for $12,000 is awfully cheap (Spiro Agnew).

But the larger issue is that most of her Metro riding constituents–over half of the adult workforce–don’t care about cost-cutting, they want the Metro to work. Potentially not dying in a fire would be nice too. Yes, in principle cost-cutting could be used to reallocate existing resources, though cutting workers won’t help repair a subway system that desperately needs more repair. But the reality is that cost-savings probably won’t be funneled back into Metro. Instead, as nearly thirty years of the neo-liberal project suggests, the savings will be funneled back into the general funds of the District, Maryland, and Virginia–probably to provide tax cuts.

No doubt this policy will be popular with the leading counter-indicator known as The Washington Post editorial board (“We were right about the Iraq War, amirite?”), most of whom don’t use the Metro.

How this helps Bowser’s constituents though, including those who use public transit*, other than the ones who donate $12,000 to her campaign, escapes me.

People have to like this crap, which means Metro has to work better. Focusing on cost-cutting probably won’t get us there.

*It’s hard to explain to people how much D.C. has changed over the last thirty years, but Bowser, who is approximately my age, is of a time and background (well-to-do multi-generation Washingtonian) that would never ride the Metro. That’s the past, not the future.

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