With pride in streetcar, D.C. transit czar resigns
D.C. Director of Transportation Leif Dormsjo announced last week he will be leaving his job, after 2½ years in the position. He also will resign from the board of directors of Washington’s Metro as he heads to a private engineering firm to work on infrastructure issues.
“I have been lucky to work alongside such good and dedicated people,” he said in an email to the District Department of Transportation staff announcing his departure. “I will miss you greatly.”
Dormsjo spoke with The Washington Post on Tuesday night, shortly after the email announcing his resignation went out.
He answered some basic questions: Yes, he expects he’ll stay in the District when he starts his new job. No, he hasn’t spoken to Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) about potential replacements.
Dormsjo also reflected on some successes and dark moments he experienced as D.C.’s transportation czar. On his most challenging moment at DDOT: When Dormsjo was brought in by Bowser shortly after she was elected mayor, he was given an urgent mandate: Get the long-delayed D.C. Streetcar up and running. Immediately, it became clear problems with the nascent system were wide-ranging.
“I distinctly remember being notified the streetcar had caught on fire,” Dormsjo said, “and wondering whether the organization — or myself — had the wherewithal to fix all the things that needed to be fixed.”
The fire didn’t do much to instill confidence among D.C. residents. Some reacted on Twitter.
“Sadly not surprised. RT @rebleberl: Forever-delayed DC streetcar gives up on itself, catches fire overnnight,” Marina Fang wrote in a tweet.
For Dormsjo, “It was a challenging moment or one that I think marked a low point in my own confidence about the way forward.”
But, one year later, the streetcar finally debuted to the public, and residents started riding — even though the trains turned out to be a little slow.
“I really am very proud that the team that was working with me didn’t quit,” Dormsjo said. “Going from that low point, to opening it up successfully and safely — that trajectory was very satisfying. It took a group of people that weren’t going to quit.” On the state of the D.C. Metro: Dormsjo joined the Metro board just a couple of months after the January 2015 smoke disaster at L’Enfant Plaza station — an appointment that required emergency legislation from the D.C. Council, part of an effort to tackle urgent financial and safety issues plaguing the transit agency.
It was a tumultuous time. After a train derailed between the Smithsonian and Federal Triangle stations in August 2015, the board sought answers from Metro officials. When Chief Safety Officer James Dougherty appeared before the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority in September 2015, Dormsjo took up a cutting line of questioning.
Dougherty, who was grilled at length about the derailment, told the committee his department is responsible for broad, overarching safety policies within the agency and does not focus specifically on each of Metro’s hundreds of day-to-day operational activities, such as track inspections.
Dormsjo then called Dougherty’s department “a paper tiger,” saying, “It seems to me, by your own testimony today, you’ve got no information about what goes on at WMATA operational . . . . What’s the point of having a safety department if you’re not deeply embedded in the organization’s operations?”
Within hours, Metro announced Dougherty’s departure.
Dormsjo stands by that kind of toughness. Now, he says, there has been a “radical realignment of objectives and priorities,” and he has a “certain degree of confidence” those changes have taken hold.
“I have been critical of the prior management group’s lack of attention to safety and system preservation, and gaps in the transparency of what was going on at Metro operations,” he said. “To have a board now that’s focused on the things I always felt were core to the service and the life of Metro — it’s pretty satisfying that that shift has taken place and we’re getting back to focusing on maintenance and customer service, reliability and fundamentals.”
“I really am very proud that the team that was working with me didn’t quit.” Leif Dormsjo, who’s leaving his job as D.C. director of transportation
On his relationship with Bowser: Dormsjo credits Bowser for her “outstanding support” of his policies and decisions — even when it may not have been politically expedient.
“She had been on the Metro board when the things that were problematic had taken hold,” Dormsjo said. “But she didn’t instinctually take a defensive position on that. She took a reformist position and then backed the delegation from the District that was focused on challenging some of the base assumptions about how Metro was being governed. And that took some guts.
“That was really inspiring for me,” he added. “It gave me a strong signal that I should just focus on getting the right things done and be candid about any shortcomings. And that’s not necessarily typical of public officials.” On the things he wishes he could have fixed: There’s plenty to criticize about Dormsjo’s tenure at DDOT: He tried to institute a $1,000 fine for excessive speeding — a proposal critics called unjustified, overly harsh and “a cash grab in the name of safety.” DDOT ended up lowering the fine.
The D.C. Circulator continues to be plagued by frequent breakdowns and pervasive mechanical issues. On-time performance for the bus system this year dropped to its lowest level since at least 2012, according to data from DDOT. But when asked about his biggest regret from his tenure — the area where he wished he’d made more improvement — he didn’t talk about those issues.
Instead, he brought up the issue of project management (which, it turns out, is exactly what he’ll be working on at his new gig in the private sector).
The District and DDOT have been lambasted for the snailpaced bureaucratic processes that keep development and construction from reaching fruition.
Dormsjo said he’s proud of his efforts to find ways to expedite these processes — but he acknowledged there’s much more to be done. “We certainly have done a much better job on getting projects — whether they’re neighborhood safety enhancements or large construction projects — underway more quickly. But I still think there are ways to improve,” Dormsjo said.
“As I look back,” he added, “I still would hope that people in DDOT understand that they can continue to get high-quality projects done more swiftly, and in a way that’s responsive to the public’s needs . . . . We can deliver better, faster projects if we’re smart about how we organize them.”
Leif Dormsjo is set to join a private engineering firm to work on infrastructure issues.