The Washington Post

New boss, old problems

As Mr. Clarke takes over Metro, it faces a financial cliff and other familiar woes.


FAIRLY OR not, the mayorship of New York is often called the biggest dead-end job in American politics because so many occupants of that office have floundered. Lately, managing D.C.’S transit system is starting to get the same rap — for the same reasons. Metro’s general manager does not campaign for office or face reelection, but woe to the incumbent who lacks political acumen. Without it, their chances of success are meager.

This week, Randy Clarke arrived at Metro headquarte­rs to take over the capital region’s sickly transit network, the nation’s third largest by passenger count. Metro is not alone among the country’s big-league systems in facing an array of daunting problems. In Metro’s case, those problems have endured and mounted for so many years — and, during the past year, spiraled into even greater disorder — that they are starting to look insoluble.

The system’s last chief — Paul J. Wiedefeld, a competent manager and a decent man — was only the latest to leave the job in a cloud of dysfunctio­n. He departed in May, six weeks before his scheduled retirement, amid reports that about 250 subway train operators had not bothered to update the training and testing required for recertific­ation.

Before coming to Washington, Mr. Clarke had been running a much smaller and less fraught system, in Austin. At the helm of Metro, he will need not just managerial chops but also political finesse. He will need it partly because Metro is a franchise that serves and is shared among two states, the District of Columbia and a handful of localities whose agendas sometimes diverge, making the job an ongoing diplomatic minuet. He will also need finely tuned political antennae to keep Metro from hurtling off a very steep financial cliff, triggering crippling cuts to service and endangerin­g the system’s credibilit­y.

That cliff is looming because subway passenger counts (and therefore revenue projection­s) are so low: They were just 38 percent of pre-covid levels in June. Thanks to more than $2 billion in federal pandemic rescue funds, it has muddled through so far, although with other serious problems owing to wheel malfunctio­ns on its newest passenger cars. But the federal money will start to run out next summer, leaving a funding gap of more than $300 million in Metro’s $2.4 billion operating budget for 2023. Translatio­n: fewer trains and shorter operating hours in a region whose economic recovery depends on Metro’s good health.

It is critical that Mr. Clarke begin devising a solution now, before the till runs dry. That will mean lobbying legislativ­e leaders and governors in Annapolis and Richmond, as well as key figures in D.C., for a cash infusion.

No one knows how long the passenger shortfall will last. Around the country, many employees continue to work remotely — including federal workers in D.C. For Metro to fully recover its previous revenue base, those workers will need to return to the office. Mr. Clarke can encourage their return by providing steady, safe and efficient service. That means finding the cash to pay for it.

 ?? GAYA GUPTA/THE WASHINGTON POST ?? Metro’s new manager, Randy Clarke, talks with reporters Monday.
GAYA GUPTA/THE WASHINGTON POST Metro’s new manager, Randy Clarke, talks with reporters Monday.

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