Talkin’ Transit

Richard Sarles at the groundbreaking of the Mass Transit Tunnel in June 2009. Courtesy former Gov. Jon Jon Corzine's office

Richard Sarles at the groundbreaking of the Mass Transit Tunnel in June 2009. Courtesy former Gov. Jon Jon Corzine's office

Greater Greater Washington and the Washington Post both have the news that Metro is hoping to name former New Jersey Transit Executive Director Richard Sarles as interim head of the agency on Thursday. The Post reports that Metro Board Chairman Peter Benjamin confirms they do not currently have a contract with Sarles, but that he “is certainly a person we would like to appoint.”

Benjamin goes on to praise Sarles’s background, and calls him “solid on safety.” Sarles was appointed head of NJ Transit in 2007 after five years as Assistant Executive Director for Capital Programs and Planning there. He retired in January. Before working for NJ Transit, Sarles was at Amtrak where he led development of the Northeast Corridor High-Speed Rail program. He also has an engineering and project management background that spanned 20 years at the Port Authority.

Salres obviously has the chops to deal with the problems facing Metro. We aren’t privy to the interview process, and not living in the NY/NJ area, are not as familiar with his thinking on transit. Luckily, Sarles participates as a panel expert on the National Journal‘s transportation blog, commenting on many of the issues facing transportation planners. Read on for a little bit of insight.

Sarles is emphatic that safety has to be a top priority for any transit agency. He points out that at NJ Transit they first tried to keep the system in what’s called “state of good repair,” before considering core upgrades and other expansion. Keeping a system in a “state of good repair” forces an agency to get rid of out dated or dangerous equipment, and requires that an deferred maintenance be done before other work. If you’re a policy or transportation wonk, this document (PDF) might be interesting reading on “state of good repair.”

He also welcomes federal regulation of safety at transit agencies, and makes recommendations for the Federal Transit Agency to mirror the structure of regulation that the Federal Railroad Administration has over railroads. He does point out that transit agency also have local issues to deal with that must be taken into account, and that new regulations should come with federal dollars to help implement them.

Sarles would like to see more money coming from the federal government for big transit projects. “Being able to obtain operating funds from the Federal government,” he writes, “especially for new initiatives and services that are in the national interest, such as those addressing environmental and energy concerns, would go a long way to insuring the reach and frequency of transit services are improved.”

He’s supportive of the Department of Transportation’s January announcement that it would change the funding requirements for big transit projects to take into account “livability,” and is optimistic on the administration’s view on alternate modes of transit, saying that he “commend the administration for recognizing the role streetcars, light rail and BRT must play in this nation’s transportation system as we move as a country toward smarter, more sustainable development.”

Sarles argues for multimodal transit and transportation planning, rather than the current system of reducing congestion. He writes:

For many years, the dominating planning focus has been addressing congestion, which is a symptom of a transportation system in stress, rather than on policies and logical planning steps to avoid these symptoms or manage the largest impacts of congestion. We would be wise to choose a different starting point and get at the problem earlier by asking what multimodal strategies and actions are possible so we can avoid these mobility issues.

Sarles is also pushing for more transit oriented development, saying that “access to public transportation service and the attributes of that access can have as much or more to do with whether people are attracted to using public transportation.”

In 2007, shortly after taking up his post as Executive Director of NJ Transit, the New York Times profiled Sarles. He speaks with passion about transit, about getting more people to take public transportation. “We want public transit to be the preferred choice for the commuters,” he told the Times. “We don’t want to force them out of their automobiles; we want to attract them out of their automobiles.”

If Sarles can bring that passion and sentiment to Washington, and if he can meet the challenge of a system no longer operating in a state of good repair, I think we might see him around for a bit longer than “interim” implies.

Born in Lebanon, Samer moved to DC to go to college. A lot of good that did him. Twenty-two years later, he still lives in the area. When he’s not writing for a blog or tweeting incessantly, he wanders the streets (and the globe) photographing whatever gets in his way.

2 thoughts on “Talkin’ Transit

  1. I moved here from NJ a short time ago, and used to be a frequent NJT rider.

    Although fares skyrocketed in the process, NJT modernized its enormous suburban rail system in an incredibly short period of time, and has proposed some fantastic system expansion projects now that the rest of the system is finally in order. Prior to the modernization efforts, the system was on the brink of collapse — now it’s one of the busiest commuter rail networks on the planet, poised to last another 100 years.

    Their safety record has been consistently excellent in recent years, although I imagine that the safety requirements of a metro system do differ substantially from those of a suburban rail system. Although the fair increases were painful, I very much liked NJT’s “do it right, or don’t do it at all” mentality. That $6bn tunnel is a bargain, considering the number of cars that it will take off of the road.

  2. Thanks for the insight. It’s good to hear that he was able to help turn a system around. I do worry that Metro’s structure will get in the way, but here’s hoping.