How Sarles can leave his mark on Metro

January 30, 2011

Dear Richard Sarles,

Congratulations on being appointed chief executive officer of Metro.

You've already made a lot of progress as an interim leader. You've started creating a culture of safety and fixing unsafe conditions. You've stabilized a rudderless organization. You've published concrete performance metrics and commissioned assessments of problem areas, like escalators.

Now that you're going to be staying for a while, there are some big long-term problems that need your attention.

l Improve customer service. It's great for trains and buses to run smoothly, but when something goes wrong, riders need information and ways to report bad experiences. Communication after service disruptions is spotty. Customer service representatives often lack the information they need. Some e-mailed requests don't get a response for weeks.

Many government agencies are using communication tools like Twitter to not only broadcast information but to hear from riders; so far, Metro's tweeting has been somewhat clumsy and just one-way. The online customer service form is hard to use, and mobile phone systems such as NextBus don't include ways to report problems, which sometimes makes your staff think everything's great when really people just aren't speaking up.

l Expand Metrorail capacity. Metrorail will be at capacity by 2030, and some sections, such as the Orange Line in Virginia or the western Red Line, are already stuffed. Yet you removed from the capital plan new power substations that are necessary to run more eight-car trains because you needed that money to fix signals and replace old railcars. Your staff rejected having more doors on each car and seating arrangements that fit more people standing in the new railcar designs.

If we're not going to have eight-car trains or more room in the cars, what is Metro going to do to keep overcrowded platforms from becoming the safety issue of the next generation?

l Create some bus priority corridors. Buses spend a lot of time stuck in traffic. Metro has proposed dedicated bus lanes, signals that change to green for buses, and more. This will require cooperation from local governments, and last year's federal stimulus TIGER grant brought some money to start, but hurdles remain.

Your leadership can help make this a high priority for both Metro and all local governments. Use that strong support you enjoy from the Metro board and area governors, mayors and chairmen to bring everyone to the table and make real progress.

l Sell a long-term funding plan. Metro depends on local governments paying to keep itself running and make repairs. Over the past few decades, the funds haven't been enough, which is why trains, buses, escalators and everything else keep breaking down. Metro needs more from local governments and from the federal government, too, but there's even a danger that what little it's getting from Congress will disappear.

As CEO of Metro, you have a bully pulpit. You can get on TV, on the radio and in the newspaper and call for a dedicated revenue source to fix the broken systems and keep them working. You can bring stakeholders from governments, riders, local communities and businesses together to make it happen. Let's have the Sarles Plan, and make it absolutely clear that if our region wants a world-class transit system, it needs to enact the Sarles Plan.

l Make Metro a good place for good people to work. There are some great people at Metro and some who are not quite so great. With silos between functions and some pockets of ossified management, some of the great people can't do as much as they could. And with staff being cut, the great people aren't likely to get promoted either.

When people were talking about bringing in someone from private industry to head Metro, that seemed exciting because top-tier companies have found ways to reward the best people and encourage the lowest performers to move on, in both management and unionized jobs.

If you can solve these problems, not only will you "leave [Metro] better than you found it," as you said in your speech Thursday, but you'll be remembered as a great CEO during a very trying time. As a rider who cares very much about Metro, I sincerely hope you succeed.

David Alpert is D.C. vice chairman of Metro's Riders' Advisory Council and the founder and editor of the blog Greater Greater Washington. He participates in The Post's Local Blog Network.

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