Metro’s new chief: ‘We have so much catch­ing up to do’

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - ROBERT MCCART­NEY

In less than a month, Metro’s chief ex­ec­u­tive Richard Sar­les has gone from be­ing a quiet care­taker await­ing re­tire­ment to a per­ma­nent leader charged with res­cu­ing the tran­sit sys­tem from years of mis­man­age­ment and ne­glect.

The change has been so abrupt that it in­evitably arouses sus­pi­cion that Metro, for the umpteenth time, is pro­tect­ing the sta­tus quo when it re­ally needs a revo­lu­tion.

Af­ter all, it’s hard to ad­just to the idea of Sar­les, 65, as a trans­for­ma­tional CEO and gen­eral man­ager. Af­ter tak­ing of­fice as in­terim chief in April, the white­haired, craggy-faced en­gi­neer said re­peat­edly that he wasn’t in­ter­ested in re­main­ing. He started to change his mind in the fall and told the board defini­tively only in late De­cem­ber that he’d like to stay on.

Nev­er­the­less, for now I’m will­ing to give Sar­les the ben­e­fit of the doubt. I do so partly be­cause in an in­ter­view Thurs­day, he made a per­sua­sive case that he’s started to fix what’s bro­ken in Metro de­spite his low pro­file since ar­riv­ing.

In par­tic­u­lar, Sar­les has me­thod­i­cally taken steps to start ful­fill­ing what I think is the CEO’s most im­por­tant task: get­ting the Metro staff to be more con­sis­tent and ac­count­able about im­prov­ing safety and re­li­a­bil­ity.

“I think I demon­strated just com­ing in here that I was no care­taker, even on an in­terim ba­sis,” Sar­les said. “Chang­ing the safety cul­ture here is a trans­for­ma­tional event for this place, and we’ve

made a good start on that. Quick­en­ing the pace, in terms of restor­ing this place to a state of good re­pair, is trans­for­ma­tional.”

Still, Sar­les must de­liver steady, vis­i­ble ad­vances in Metro’s per­for­mance. Oth­er­wise, the cri­sis in pub­lic con­fi­dence in Metro that crys­tal­lized with the 2009 Red Line crash will con­tinue.

The re­gion can’t af­ford to let the tran­sit sys­tem slide fur­ther. It’s the core of our trans­porta­tion net­work, and its suc­cess and ul­ti­mate growth are vi­tal to con­trol­ling con­ges­tion and pol­lu­tion as the area’s pop­u­la­tion ex­pands.

Metro Di­rec­tor Mort Downey — a for­mer U.S. deputy sec­re­tary of trans­porta­tion who’s known Sar­les for years and helped bring him to Metro — said Sar­les is the right pick be­cause the sys­tem just needs to work on the ba­sics for a while.

“ This is block­ing and tack­ling. This is not throw­ing a ‘Hail Mary’ pass,” Downey said. “ There’s a time when shak­ing up and charis­matic lead­er­ship and turn­ing the place up­side down to move it to the next level can be the right thing. I think where we are, where Metro is, we need to first build a level from which you can go to the next level.”

To his credit, Sar­les is pretty can­did about the prob­lems he’s now be­ing paid $350,000 a year to over­come. That in it­self is a re­fresh­ing switch at Metro, where man­agers and di­rec­tors spent far too long blam­ing trou­bles just on a short­age of money. Sar­les said mat­ter-of-factly that the sys­tem has not been main­tained ad­e­quately “over many, many years.”

More­over, with­out nam­ing names, he pointed a fin­ger at pre­vi­ous man­age­ment prac­tices. In the past, Sar­les said, Metro em­ploy­ees were un­able to do nec­es­sary up­keep on rail lines be­cause of a de­sire to keep trains run­ning as much as pos­si­ble even when planned ser­vice out- ages were needed for main­te­nance.

Work­ers “saw the con­di­tion of the sys­tem. They knew this stuff had to be done, and yet they were con­strained from it,” Sar­les said. “I ba­si­cally said this place is not in good shape. It’s not get­ting bet­ter. It hasn’t been main­tained well, and we’ve got to step this up.”

Sar­les has or­dered more planned out­ages, with more main­te­nance packed into each. It’s in­con­ve­nient for pas­sen­gers, but bet­ter than un­planned dis­rup­tions caused by break­downs.

He said a sim­i­lar, mis­guided em­pha­sis on quick fixes was to blame for Metro’s no­to­ri­ously mal­func­tion­ing es­ca­la­tors. “ There was pres­sure [to] get them back op­er­a­tional, [so] you didn’t get to the root of the prob­lem,” Sar­les said. “We have so much catch­ing up to do.”

On safety, Sar­les’s progress in adopt­ing re­forms urged by the Na­tional Trans­porta­tion Safety Board has drawn praise from both the board and one of Metro’s most pow­er­ful past crit­ics: Sen. Bar­bara A. Mikul­ski (D-Md).

Sar­les in­sisted that he “ to­tally,” “ab­so­lutely” had no in­ten­tion of stay­ing when he first ar­rived. He changed his mind partly be­cause of pos­i­tive feed­back from staff and partly be­cause of am­bi­tion to make a mark on the tran­sit sys­tem that most in­flu­ences na­tional pol­icy.

“I spent my en­tire life in this busi­ness. This par­tic­u­lar or­ga­ni­za­tion . . . is very im­por­tant to the rest of the in­dus­try,” Sar­les said. “ There’s a lot of aides to con­gress­men and sen­a­tors who are rid­ing ev­ery day. Truly, we in­flu­ence here in­Wash­ing­ton what the per­cep­tion is of pub­lic tran­sit.”

I shud­der to think that any­thing’s na­tional rep­u­ta­tion would rely on Metro. But the re­gion will ben­e­fit if that in­cen­tive leads Sar­les to shore up the sys­tem’s foun­da­tions.

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