How Sar­les can leave his mark on Metro

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS - David Alpert is D.C. vice chair­man of Metro’s Rid­ers’ Ad­vi­sory Coun­cil and the founder and edi­tor of the blog Greater Greater Washington. He par­tic­i­pates in The Post’s Lo­cal Blog Net­work.

Dear Richard Sar­les,

Con­grat­u­la­tions on be­ing ap­pointed chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer of Metro.

You’ve al­ready made a lot of progress as an in­terim leader. You’ve started cre­at­ing a cul­ture of safety and fix­ing un­safe con­di­tions. You’ve sta­bi­lized a rud­der­less or­ga­ni­za­tion. You’ve pub­lished con­crete per­for­mance met­rics and com­mis­sioned as­sess­ments of prob­lem ar­eas, like es­ca­la­tors.

Now that you’re go­ing to be stay­ing for a while, there are some big long-term prob­lems that need your at­ten­tion.

Im­prove cus­tomer ser­vice. It’s great for trains and buses to run smoothly, but when some­thing goes wrong, rid­ers need in­for­ma­tion and ways to re­port bad ex­pe­ri­ences. Com­mu­ni­ca­tion af­ter ser­vice dis­rup­tions is spotty. Cus­tomer ser­vice rep­re­sen­ta­tives of­ten lack the in­for­ma­tion they need. Some e-mailed re­quests don’t get a re­sponse for weeks.

Many govern­ment agen­cies are us­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tion tools like Twit­ter to not only broad­cast in­for­ma­tion but to hear from rid­ers; so far, Metro’s tweet­ing has been some­what clumsy and just one-way. The on­line cus­tomer ser­vice form is hard to use, and mo­bile phone sys­tems such as Next Bus don’t in­clude ways to re­port prob­lems, which some­times makes your staff think ev­ery­thing’s great when re­ally peo­ple just aren’t speak­ing up.

Ex­pand Metro­rail ca­pac­ity. Metro­rail will be at ca­pac­ity by 2030, and some sec­tions, such as the Orange Line in Vir­ginia or the western Red Line, are al­ready stuffed. Yet you re­moved from the cap­i­tal plan new power sub­sta­tions that are nec­es­sary to run more eight-car trains be­cause you needed that money to fix sig­nals and re­place old rail­cars. Your staff re­jected hav­ing more doors on each car and seat­ing ar­range­ments that fit more peo­ple stand­ing in the new rail­car de­signs.

If we’re not go­ing to have eight-car trains or more room in the cars, what is Metro go­ing to do to keep over­crowded plat­forms from be­com­ing the safety is­sue of the next gen­er­a­tion?

Cre­ate some bus pri­or­ity cor­ri­dors. Buses spend a lot of time stuck in traf­fic. Metro has pro­posed ded­i­cated bus lanes, sig­nals that change to green for buses, and more. This will re­quire co­op­er­a­tion from lo­cal gov­ern­ments, and last year’s fed­eral stim­u­lus TIGER grant brought

some money to start, but hur­dles re­main.

Your lead­er­ship can help make this a high pri­or­ity for both Metro and all lo­cal gov­ern­ments. Use that strong sup­port you en­joy from the Metro board and area gov­er­nors, may­ors and chair­men to bring ev­ery­one to the ta­ble and make real progress.

Sell a long-term fund­ing

plan. Metro de­pends on lo­cal gov­ern­ments pay­ing to keep it­self run­ning and make re­pairs. Over the past few decades, the funds haven’t been enough, which is why trains, buses, es­ca­la­tors and ev­ery­thing else keep break­ing down. Metro needs more from lo­cal gov­ern­ments and from the fed­eral govern­ment, too, but there’s even a dan­ger that what lit­tle it’s get­ting from Congress will dis­ap­pear.

As CEO of Metro, you have a bully pul­pit. You can get on TV, on the ra­dio and in the news­pa­per and call for a ded­i­cated rev­enue source to fix the bro­ken sys­tems and keep them work­ing. You can bring stake­hold­ers from gov­ern­ments, rid­ers, lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties and busi­nesses to­gether to make it hap­pen. Let’s have the Sar­les Plan, and make it ab­so­lutely clear that if our re­gion wants a world-class tran­sit sys­tem, it needs to en­act the Sar­les Plan.

Make Metro a good place for good peo­ple to work. There are some great peo­ple at Metro and some who are not quite so great. With si­los be­tween func­tions and some pock­ets of os­si­fied man­age­ment, some of the great peo­ple can’t do as much as they could. And with staff be­ing cut, the great peo­ple aren’t likely to get pro­moted ei­ther.

When peo­ple were talk­ing about bring­ing in some­one from pri­vate in­dus­try to head Metro, that seemed ex­cit­ing be­cause top-tier com­pa­nies have found ways to re­ward the best peo­ple and en­cour­age the low­est per­form­ers to move on, in both man­age­ment and union­ized jobs.

If you can solve these prob­lems, not only will you “ leave [Metro] bet­ter than you found it,” as you said in your speech Thurs­day, but you’ll be re­mem­bered as a great CEO dur­ing a very try­ing time. As a rider who cares very much about Metro, I sin­cerely hope you suc­ceed.

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