With pride in street­car, D.C. tran­sit czar re­signs

The Washington Post Sunday - - COMMUTER - THE DIS­TRICT BY MARTINE POW­ERS martine.pow­ers@wash­post.com

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.”

ASTRID RIECKEN FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Leif Dorm­sjo is set to join a pri­vate en­gi­neer­ing firm to work on in­fra­struc­ture is­sues.

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