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Richard Sarles chosen for top spot at Metro

By Ashley Halsey III and Ann Scott Tyson,

Richard Sarles, the retired New Jersey transportation official brought in to run Metro on a temporary basis, will become the transit system's permanent general manager and take on the title of chief executive officer, the board of directors said Friday.

The CEO designation will give the veteran transit official an unprecedented level of authority and autonomy. The decision to award Sarles that power followed recommendations from two groups that the Metro board focus on major policy issues and reduce its micromanagement of daily operations.

"We hope that he continues with the head-down approach to get the job done," said Jim Dinegar, president of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, which helped form a task force last year that concluded poor leadership was contributing to Metro's decline. "Richard Sarles is first-class. We're very pleased with the caliber of leadership he brings."

Once the board formalizes its decision with a Jan. 27 vote, Sarles will be empowered by shedding the interim title but faced with a daunting long-term challenge to resurrect a transit system beset with safety issues, aging infrastructure and an enormous shortage of money.

Both the task force and the Metro Riders' Advisory Council recommended that the new general manager have greater control over the system than his predecessors. The task force, in a November report, said "the lack of delineation of responsibilities has created an environment where there is no clear understanding of who is accountable for issues such as day-to-day management, communication, operations, and safety."

Sarles, who for months said he had no interest in staying on, won the admiration of Metro's board in tackling morale and safety issues and budget deficits. His achievements made him one of three finalists for the job.

As his appointment becomes permanent, he will be better able to fill a management gap by hiring top talent and bargaining with unions as he seeks to cut costs.

Although he still faces intense negotiations, Dinegar said, " now there is a very clear focus as to who is in charge: It's Richard Sarles."

Metro board Chairman Peter Benjamin, who headed the search committee, said he would refrain from discussing the decision until the board takes final action next week. Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) revealed the news during an interview Friday on WTOP radio.

Sarles was not available for comment Friday, but in an interview last week, he said the long-term goals of the agency should be a "high level of focus on safety and state of good repair [that] has to be focused on for several years."

Sarles, 65, joined Metro in March, two months after retiring from New Jersey Transit. He replaced John B. Catoe Jr., who abruptly resigned as general manager to give the troubled agency a new start. Paid a monthly salary of $25,000, less than Catoe was paid and indicative of his temporary status, Sarles quickly hired a chief of safety and filled several key vacancies.

But Sarles said his interim status made it difficult to attract top talent to the management team "because they don't know who their boss is."

Sarles, who has more than 40 years of transit experience, has also worked for Amtrak and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. He received a bachelor's degree in engineering from the Cooper Union and an MBA from Rutgers University.

The system Sarles inherited 10 months ago was in disarray after accidents, maintenance problems and a seemingly relentless series of mishaps gave riders the impression that what once was the nation's premier transit system was no longer reliable or safe.

While taking steps to address that, Sarles also has faced funding challenges. The $1.4 billion operating budget for fiscal 2012, sent to the board last week, included a projected $72 million gap that Sarles says Maryland, Virginia and the District will have to fund. Metro implemented the most expansive package of fare increases in its history last summer to help close a $189 million deficit in the current operating budget.

With austere budget pictures in Richmond, Annapolis and the District, finding the money to avert service cuts or more fare increases is expected to be problematic.

Metro is also in the middle of a dramatic shift in leadership. Eight of the 14 current positions on the board of directors are turning over. And last week the region's top transportation officials outlined a two-year plan for implementing substantial changes in how Metro is run.

The American Public Transportation Association praised Sarles and called the appointment "good news" for Metro.

Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) said through a spokesman that Sarles will "provide strong leadership and stability to this important organization."

"We have enjoyed a good working relationship with him and are noticing significant improvements being made in Metro under Mr. Sarles's leadership," McDonnell spokesman Jeff Caldwell said.

Staff writers Anita Kumar and Nikita Stewart and Martin Weil contributed to this report.

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