I was curious about what information people are requesting from WMATA through the public access to records policy (PARP) process (PDF). PARP is WMATA’s version of FOIA, an important way of obtaining information from government agencies. I requested and received information about all the requests made in a year, including the date opened and closed, subject matter, and whether any exemptions were applied in the WMATA response. I categorized the requests to see what the most common request types are.
Going through the list of requests, it’s clear that people are interested in Smartrip card transaction records. Out of 454 requests, over 52% (240) were for Smartrip transaction records. Given that WMATA will only provide personally identifiable Smartrip records by request of the person identified, under a court order or a law enforcement request (see PARP 6.1.8), it’s clear that these requests are either some sort of investigation, people curious about their records, or people trying to prove something about their travels. These requests are typically filled quickly, within three weeks, and among the requests analyzed, exemptions were rare (only a handful among hundreds of requests). Once WMATA starts up online Smartrip account access as expected late next year, perhaps many of these requests will become unnecessary.
The second most common request category is for incident reports, accident investigations, identification of injured passengers, vehicle operator statements, police records, and other records related to WMATA transit vehicle incidents. Out of the 454 requests, 28% (126) of them were for incident reports or other information about incidents. It’s common among these requests for WMATA to cite the exemptions for internal memoranda that would not be released even under litigation (6.1.5) or for personal privacy (6.1.6), but it wasn’t clear what amount of information was withheld under these exemptions. I’d be interested in seeing what level of event is considered an "incident", and given the high level of public interest in obtaining the reports, WMATA should preemptively redact the documents (to remove privacy information) and place them in the "documents of presumed public interest" section of the webpage as other agencies subject to FOIA or other access to records policies do.
The third most comment request category is for information on WMATA’s contracts. These are 23 requests (5%) from people interested in receiving the contract, bidding information, etc. To me, it’s strange that only some WMATA contracts are placed on the public interest webpage, and the vast majority of them have to be obtained through PARP. For example, WMATA signs dozens of contracts per year for services, parts, agreements and yet only three contracts are listed on the public interest webpage.
Another category is financial information, 12 requests (3%). You can apparently request title, code, union status, pay rate, date of hire and other information about WMATA employees, and it’s not exempted (sometimes some information is withheld under the privacy exemption, but some broad requests were not exempted at all. Atlanta’s transit agency, MARTA, posts the entire employee database of compensation online (with names removed).
The last two categories were two broad to be included in the ranking above, for this reason I did not rank them above. There were 34 (7%) requests that I would classify as "Management", asking about ridership, policies, who made decisions, etc, and there were 19 (4%) that I classified as "Other", where I couldn’t really tell enough from the request to adequately classify it, or it didn’t seem to fit one of the categories but there weren’t enough similar requests to make a new category.
PDF of the PARP requests available upon request to michaelp (at) ggwash (dot) org.