Metro’s new board members take on a troubled, aging rail system

March 26, 2011

Metro’s new guard met for the first time in February, eager to demonstrate that they could repair the region’s grand but aging subway system — and keep it running at the same time.

But there was a problem with that, according to the newest D.C. appointee to the 14-member Board of Directors, Tom Downs: midnight to 3 a.m. service on weekends was making it hard to repair tracks during off-peak, early-morning hours.

He suggested the possibility of scaling back or curtailing that service, which had long been zealously protected by District board members. Downs was breaking free of convention — and dropping a bombshell.

Such thinking will need to become standard fare on the board if Downs and six other newly appointed members are to put the financially strapped Metro, which turns 35 on Sunday, back on track. Their first order of business will be to take hold of Metro’s massive six-year, $5 billion rebuilding program.

The seven new members, appointed since December, represent the biggest changing of the guard in the board’s history. They join the first two federal appointees, who arrived just over a year ago. Two more are expected to be named in coming months, bringing the board’s membership to 16. Congress mandated those four seats in return for dedicated federal funding.

Although any curtailment of midnight to 3 a.m. weekend service was shelved, the new members are nonetheless staking out aggressive positions on issues ranging from crime prevention to random bag inspections. They are going to extremes to emphasize a regional approach — illustrated by Downs’s proposed cutback of weekend service. And they are adopting a more strategic view of Metro’s long-range problems. Meanwhile, they have embarked on a plan to redefine the board as a policymaking body, after criticism in two recent reports that the board tends to be parochial and micromanaging.

The new board members represent a mixture of skills, including current and former elected officials, government and university administrators, transit experts and those who know little about Metro. They are unified, however, in recognizing that the next two or three years of their tenure will mark a critical juncture for the Metrorail system, the nation’s second busiest, serving about 750,000 people each weekday.

“The challenge is how we all guarantee that this system is still around in usable form for the next generation,” Downs said.

If anyone has a clear view of how far Metro has declined since the shiny new rail service opened with a 4.6-mile segment of the Red Line on March 27, 1976, it is Downs.

A vet­eran transit industry professional, Downs was chief executive of Amtrak in the 1990s, and chairman of the New Jersey Transit board.

Thirty years ago, he also served on the Metro board. At that time, the challenge was how to fund and complete the construction of the system. Now, he says, it’s basic maintenance.

The Metro board has already asked the system’s new chief executive, General Manager Richard Sarles, to provide a long-term assessment of the time required to complete track work and maintenance on the rail system, as well as critical safety upgrades recommended by the National Transportation Safety Board. Until recently, such work was ad hoc and planned only a few months in advance. In addition, the board is updating Metro’s strategic plan, which is obsolete and has not been revised since 2001.

“Everybody knew that the bus system was coming to the end of its useful life, and rail cars were past their useful life,” said Downs, who during that first board meeting in February ranted about the 4000 series rail cars, calling them “dogs” and referring to some Metro escalators as “lemons.”

Metro’s oldest 1000 series rail cars are the same ones used 35 years ago when the system opened and 50,000 Washington area residents crowded onto the trains for their first ride. The NTSB last year declared the 1000 series cars unsafe in crashes and recommended that Metro remove them as quickly as possible. But Metro officials say it is not feasible to retire the cars from the already congested subway system until replacements arrive in 2013.

Another major board project is to define the board’s role, responsibilities, and how it interacts with Sarles, the low-key former head of New Jersey Transit who served as the system’s interim chief for about 10 months before being named its permanent general manager in January.

Mary Hynes, the new board member from Arlington, is leading that effort as head of the board’s newly created governance committee. “We have a crisis and we need to define how we work together,” said Hynes, a member of the Arlington County Board.

“The board needs to come to an understanding of what decisions the board makes verses the general manager,” Hynes said. Overall, the consensus is that the board should focus on setting policy and holding the general manager accountable, while avoiding interfering in lower-level staff decisions, as it has in the past.

The board is also working to empower Sarles and his senior managers, who some board members say have been demoralized by high leadership turnover, layoffs and criticism in recent years.

“There is a real loss of confidence at the management level of Metro. They expect to get beat up on,” said Tommy Wells, a new board member from the District. “We want to instill that they have to make decisions and the board will support them.”

One of the first actions of many of the new board members was to select Sarles. The choice of Sarles was unanimous, and several new board members said they expect him to move more boldly into the public spotlight.

“While I really like General Manager Sarles, you have to know he was a safe choice, he was a railroad guy,” Wells said.

Wells, Downs and others say one reason they are raising big, contentious issues is to encourage Metro’s top leadership to address such topics publicly. “The general manager has to feel confident that he can bring issues to the board that are controversial,” Wells said.

Metro leaders have tended to allow the board to speak for them, Wells said. “There is not this strong voice from Metro itself, reassuring folks we have this under control and we are going to fix it,” he said.

New board members — all of whom regularly ride the system, unlike some past members — are also emerging as strong rider advocates.

Kathy Porter, a new board member from Maryland, has grilled Metro officials on the drawbacks of the policy of random bag searches, a tactic widely criticized by riders. The old board did not discuss the policy when Metro Transit Police Chief Michael Taborn announced its launch in December.

“Anything that has a major impact on how the riders interact with the system should be something the board considers,” Porter said. “Those things should be discussed in public.” Porter was mayor of Takoma Park from 1997 to 2007.

Alvin Nichols, former chief of staff for community investments at Fannie Mae, said that as a rail rider, his top focus will be on Metro’s chronic escalator failures. “Escalators are the thing that stand out the most,” he said. “That would be the number one issue,” said Nichols, who was confirmed Friday by the Maryland Senate for a three-year appointment to the board.

Former Maryland congressman Michael D. Barnes, nominated to the board this month, was at the ribbon-cutting for Metrorail in 1976 and has watched the once-sparkling system tarnish over the years. “It’s no secret that Metro has a lot of issues,” Barnes said. “I hope I can help.”

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