No, really, some good news for WMATA

It's too early to say for sure, but Metro's choice of Richard Sarles for interim General Manager may be a very good one. There's a whole lot of analysis up already about Sarles, but the big bullet points are that he's a rail guy and will not be a mere caretaker during the search for a permanent GM. I'm going to refer you to Greater Greater Washington and We Love DC for some more detailed information on Sarles.

This year has been big for Metro news, sadly with more accidents and deaths, but also with a bit of optimism for the future. When John Catoe announced his resignation back in January, it became clear the choice for the next General Manager could be "make or break." We've got huge budget problems, as well as infrastructure issues, all on top of the lingering and serious questions of safety. Personally, I believed that the next GM (interim or permanent) needed to be an outsider would have the ability to shake things up. Now, I'll admit, the term "shake things up" is vague and often just means "do something! anything!" and often results in a lot of talk, some layoffs, and a lot of arms waving around.

Sarles has five years of experience running NJ Transit, and had previously worked for 20 years at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. He has degrees in both engineering and business. He's handled budget problems, often without having to raise fares. He recently retired from his job at NJ Transit, so his future career doesn't so much depend on what happens at WMATA.

I don't want to say Sarles is the perfect choice, he fits the bill. He has experience handling some of the same issues plaguing Metro, and he's an outsider. While he doesn't have much to gain career-wise at Metro, he also has nothing to lose. If the Metro Board is willing to stand behind him and the decisions he makes, he could work to implement the sorts of long-lasting change the agency needs. "Creative destruction" is a term I like to use when discussing what needs to happen--a vast reworking of the organization chart as well as a complete overhaul of management style. Sarles has an opportunity to come in and lay a true groundwork for the future.

Of course, as is almost always the case in life, and especially with anything political, change can be very difficult. Sarles will face pushback from the Metro employees union, and may face some pushback by the Board. If the Board knows what's good for them--and for their own political lives--they should let Sarles do the work and not attempt to sell him down the river if his ideas prove unpopular. The sort of change needed at WMATA will not be popular.

Along those lines, I'd also like to tell everyone to stop complaining about the $0.10 fare hike. The fare hike is, sadly, necessary in order to provide service. We'll be facing a bigger fare hike down the road, and no, these generally don't come with better service. Prices increase over time, and while this fare hike will be hard for some people, for many (especially Metrorail riders) it will have a small impact on personal budgets. While it's easy to grip that you have to pay more for the same (often poor) service, these are the facts of life. When the price of gas goes up, we generally don't whine that the gas isn't better quality.

Metro needs a new management style, and it needs money. Sarles is the first step. We'll dedicated funding and we'll probably need a big fare increase. However, if we can target the fare increase to make the least impact on people, and if we can improve agency-wide efficiency, there is plenty of room to be optimistic.

Yes, you read that correctly, there's reason to be optimistic for Metro's future. Who would have thought that sentence would be typed on a grey Wednesday morning in March.


  1. ...its March already, check your calendar. :)

  2. Metro is doomed. Sarles has done nothing but run NJ Transit into the ground during his tenure. Trains are slower and more unreliable than ever, thanks to service and maintenance cuts. Nearly everyone agrees that new tunnels to NYC are needed, but new tunnels to a six track stub terminal deep under 34th St and not physically connected to Penn Station are good for nothing but lining the pockets of contractors. Good luck!

  3. I have a problem with: "When the price of gas goes up, we generally don't whine that the gas isn't better quality."

    The price of gas is based primarily on supply and demand, and can go up or down. When it goes up, it generally means that there was more demand than supply at the previous price level. As with Metro, the fare hikes are strictly arbitrary and are implemented on a regular basis to continually cover inefficiencies and waste in contracting and salaries/pensions.

  4. Ridership, overtime, has increased more than fares have (I believe, I'll look for numbers). Yes, labor costs have increased too, but gas prices are in flux over far more complicated factors that supply and demand. What I'm getting at is that people are very quick to complain about how a $0.10 fare hike isn't accompanied by a huge improvement in service... but prices rise at the grocery store, at the gas station, in rents, without any sort of improvement. When everything becomes more expensive we can't expect transit (even if managed better) to remain the same price forever.

  5. David's MotherMarch 04, 2010

    Wot? Nothing on the shooting tonight at the Pentagon Metro station? I thought this site was Dave's Local Metro Blog....