D.C. Metro expects to tap ex-N.J. transit chief as interim general manager

Richard Sarles
Richard Sarles (Mel Evans - Associated Press)
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By Ann Scott Tyson and Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Metro's board of directors hopes to appoint former New Jersey Transit chief Richard Sarles as interim general manager on Thursday for the next six to 12 months, according to Metro Chairman Peter Benjamin.

If voted in by the board, Sarles would lead the troubled agency as it faces crucial safety and budgetary issues. The National Transportation Safety Board plans to issue its formal finding of what caused the June 22 Red Line crash before the one-year anniversary of the accident that killed nine people, and it may issue recommendations for corrective actions.

The interim general manager will oversee Metro's struggle to obtain adequate funding for capital needs and to fill an estimated $190 million budget gap for the fiscal year that begins July 1. Sarles would have to navigate complex politics, lobbying local jurisdictions and facing an unprecedented push from Congress and the Obama administration for increased federal oversight.

Sarles could not be reached for comment Tuesday night.

Benjamin said board members recruited Sarles because he had two key characteristics they wanted in an interim general manager: "Somebody who knows transit well and can step right in and do the job, and somebody who will not be a caretaker, who will be an assertive and aggressive leader of the organization because we have a lot of issues we have to tackle, starting with safety."

Metro sources told The Washington Post on Tuesday afternoon that the agency was in discussions with Sarles to replace General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. Catoe announced in January that he will resign April 2, and Benjamin has said the search for a permanent replacement is expected to take most of the year.

After news of the agency's discussions with Sarles were reported Tuesday by The Washington Post on its Web site, Benjamin confirmed that the agency does not yet have a contract with Sarles.

"Richard Sarles is certainly a person we would like to appoint," Benjamin said. He "is the kind of person who is experienced as a transit professional and a manager. He will be able to move forward on all fronts during the search for a [permanent] general manager."

Benjamin praised Sarles's professional background, and said he was "solid on safety."

From 2007 until January, Sarles headed New Jersey Transit, which has 11,000 employees and a combined capital and operating budget of nearly $3 billion a year, according to Dan Stessel, spokesman for the agency. Sarles retired from that position after a new governor took office in New Jersey, appointing a new transit executive. But Sarles remains an employee of New Jersey Transit.

Sarles previously headed the agency's capital program for five years, and spent 20 years at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. He has an engineering degree from Cooper Union and a business degree from Rutgers University.

Sarles gained a solid reputation after pushing through the start of construction on the $8.7 billion Hudson River tunnel in 2009, to increase commuter train traffic to and from New York. He was also known for keeping fares constant despite the loss of more than $60 million in state funding last year, cutting costs and staff instead.

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