These are a few more of the many questions and comments that travelers submitted for our Hangout with Metro General Manager Richard Sarles.
Post MetroGirl Dana Hedgpeth and I didn’t have time to read them during the half-hour Webcast, but I’d like to post them now because they channel concerns that many riders are expressing about the general manager’s fare increase proposals.
1) Deteriorating service: Metro riders have been subjected to multiple fare increases because of budgetary shortfalls in the past couple of years, one questioner said. The rapid deterioration of the system — highlighted by the fatal train collision in 2009 — led commuters to accept the initial fare hikes with hopes that increased revenue would improve safety and restore Metro’s customer service to acceptable levels.
The successive fare hikes in face of a continually deteriorating system with constant delays have led me (and surely a large portion of the ridership) to view the problems in WMATA as mostly managerial, rather than budgetary.
DG: This commenter went on to call for Sarles to step down in favor of a new management team. My reaction was, Sarles is the new management team. He’s a couple weeks shy of his first anniversary as permanent general manager after serving 10 months as interim manager following the resignation of John B. Catoe Jr.
“Fire the coach” isn’t much of a management strategy.
The last fare increase was in the summer of 2010, and it was a doozy. This round could be simple by comparison, though the Metro board gets its first look at Sarles’s budget proposal today and could modify it before sending the plan out for public hearings.
Sarles says he’s doing the things the commenter and so many other riders say they want. As he and his managers put it — over and over — their goal is to restore Metro to a “state of good repair” after years when the investment didn’t match the need.
It’s a logical management strategy. It doesn’t cover the managers in glory, but it sets the transit system on the path to recovery.
However, I think the managers’ focus sometimes misses the impact on riders of the day in, day out experience of bus and train delays, busted escalators and deteriorating platforms.
Sarles would disagree with the characterization that the system is “continually deteriorating.” He thinks riders are going to start to see better performing equipment.
2) Service, expenses: I am actually okay with the fare increase as long as it improves service. But I think the bigger problem is expenditures. Metro just cannot seem to get its fiscal house in order.
DG: Sarles says that out of the $116 million in operating cost growth in his proposed budget, the four biggest items are $35 million for pension and fringe benefits, $35 million for improvements to the existing transit system, $20 million to get ready for the opening of the Dulles Silver Line and another $20 million in increased labor costs.
Once he formally makes his proposal to the Metro board at 9 a.m. today in Metro’s D.C. headquarters, the board and the transit staff will kick it back and forth, send it out for public review, then kick it around some more before finally adopting a plan in June.
My guess is that spending figure is going to come down.