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WMATA refuses to release 'mystery rider' findings

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Metro riders (Examiner file photo)

Metro is paying $252,000 in commuters' fares and taxpayer dollars to a group of undercover riders to assess the transit system, but the agency will not disclose their findings.

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority denied a public-records request this week that The Washington Examiner made in June for the findings of Metro's "mystery rider" program. The program, intended to systematically evaluate the agency's customer service on its buses and trains, has been running since February.

"We have withheld the reports because they contain observations and ratings that are intended to help WMATA fix any issues that arise relating to the Metrorail and Metrobus systems," the agency wrote in a letter.

The reports also are used as training tools and may contain proprietary and confidential commercial information, it added, citing an exception in its "public access to records policy" for trade secrets at the public agency. The Examiner has appealed Metro's decision.

Metro has provided such records in the past through its public-records policy, which has not changed. It also seems to contradict the general manager's pledge for openness and transparency when he joined the agency. "I don't want to hide problems. That's the worst thing you can do," Richard Sarles said in March 2010 when he became interim general manager.

In 2009, the transit agency provided a report to The Examiner from a similar "mystery rider" program. The secret riders found that Metro sales clerks gave incorrect information 25 percent of the time and provided "good customer service" 50 percent of the time. Trains earned the equivalent of a D-minus, with a score of 60 percent on cleanliness. That contract cost $916,000 for five years but was dropped less than a year after it began because of concerns about the cost during a tight budget cycle.

This time, Metro hired a Falls Church company, Synovate, to secretly assess customer service. Metro is paying $252,000 in the first year, but has options for two more years, giving it a higher annual cost than the previous contract.

The transit agency already hears a lot from riders, who lodge some 40,000 complaints each year and have sustained several blogs and Twitter feeds with their concerns. With both mystery rider programs, though, agency officials had said they wanted a more systematic approach to gathering input on the system.

Spokesman Philip Stewart said Metro has multiple ways of letting the public know about its performance, including "vital signs" scorecards, police blotter data and Metrorail service reports. It also has used the mystery rider findings in the form of a customer service action plan and plans to regularly update its board of directors in public meetings about the trends and progress.

But the agency has increasingly declined to provide information, and often takes up to 11 months to do so when fulfilling a public records request. It now declines to provide disciplinary action taken against employees, when officials previously would disclose if someone was fired or suspended without providing names. It has declined a request for the mileage logs on its fleet of vehicles used by executives for business purposes, plus multiple reports including one $70,000 consultants' report on suicide prevention and another assessing its police department. It also has failed to disclose suicides at its parking garages, saying such public deaths did not affect train service.