Talkin’ Transit: CEO Sarles

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courtesy of ‘erin m’

We are putting building blocks in place – making safety investments, improving our tracks and rail system, putting new buses in service, expanding staff training and designing new rail cars – while it may not be immediately evident and there are inconveniences along the way – we are literally building a new Metro for our customers and employees. — Metro’s GM/CEO, Richard Sarles

As we reported yesterday, Metro’s board named Richard Sarles as the permanent General Manager and Chief Executive Officer. It’s a move they should have done in the first place, and one that I said might happen when we first heard of Sarles.

Over ten months, Sarles has brought an engineer’s attitude and has been acting less interim than his title would have implied. He said he wasn’t looking to come here full time, but he always seemed to want to make an impact. “I came to Metro as the interim general manager,” he said at the board meeting yesterday, “simply wanting to help put the agency on the right path.”

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‘if it ain’t broke…’
courtesy of ‘philliefan99′

I think he’s certainly done that. Metro is by no means a shining example of a transit agency, but I think Sarles has managed to put it back on track to recovery. That path, though, is not a short or smooth one, and there’s yet a long way to go.

But, let’s take a look at where we’ve come in the last ten months. Under Sarles’s tenure, we’ve had a lot more construction in order to improve service and safety. We’ve had a refocusing on safety within the agency, and there have been far fewer deadly accidents in the system. We’ve gone from members of Congress calling for a take over of the system to a reinvigorated board and organization.

What of my wish list that I hoped Sarles could get to delivering? There’s been progress, but not nearly enough.

The system isn’t yet reliable enough, though some might say that it is reliably broken, especially on the weekends. There’s a long way to go here, and Sarles acknowledges that, saying, “we still have a big job ahead.” He points out that moving the system forward has to include “a continued commitment to safety, reliability and financial stability while adopting the fourth cornerstone of improving customer service.”

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‘dupont circle’
courtesy of ‘dracisk 365/365′

I still want to see more 8-car trains, but at least Metro is now much more honest with us about why they aren’t there yet (surprise, no money). There does seem to be a shift in the culture of Metro toward more openness, but there’s definitely a tug of war between the past and the future. And speaking of the culture, I think it, too, is slowly changing. Bus and rail staff seem more friendly, though it’s still far from certain that an employee will be helpful.

This year saw one of the largest increases in fares, and the addition of a strange and complicated peak-of-the-peak pricing. I have no idea what I’ll be paying when I enter the system anymore. Luckily, SmarTrip makes it relatively painless, and I can now track my spending online. Metro has released a lot of data over the last ten months, and there’s still hope it’ll make it into Google Transit. Some day. Soon.

Sarles still has a lot of work to do, though. And the job isn’t made any easier by the need for money, big money. Part of the “CEO” title is surely going to mean he’s going to have to do more talking to and convincing of members of Congress, who are going to have to cough up more money to keep the system from having to reduce service.

Photo courtesy of
‘dupont circle’
courtesy of ‘dracisk 365/365′

“Operating more efficiently will continue to be a focus for us throughout the agency, particularly as it related to the operating budget,” Sarles said. “However, I want to point out that our ability to operate our core services, as well as continue safety and reliability improvements through rebuilding our infrastructure and equipment depend upon adequate funding.”

And so, while Sarles really is the right man for the job in my view, it’s clear that the future of Metro is far from certain. He’s going to improve many things, from escalators and elevators to customer service and safety, but at the end of the day, money is still the system’s biggest need, and that’s a tough sell in a good economy.

Read Sarles’s comments to the board.

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.

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