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Ex-N.J. Transit chief named interim manager of D.C. Metro

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 5, 2010; B01

Metro's board of directors unanimously voted to appoint former New Jersey Transit chief Richard Sarles as the agency's interim general manager Thursday, installing a veteran transit official who board members said would keep the transit agency from drifting as it faces unprecedented safety, financial and leadership challenges.

Sarles pledged to make safety his "first priority" when he takes the helm at Metro on April 3 amid four investigations by the National Transportation Safety Board into serious accidents -- including the June 2009 Red Line crash that killed nine people. Sarles will oversee the initial implementation of NTSB recommendations, expected by June, to correct causes of that crash.

Sarles called the string of employee and rider deaths during the past year "unacceptable" and said they have tarnished Metro's reputation. "It's our job to restore that reputation through action," he said at a news conference after his appointment. "We have to show results."

One way that Sarles, 65, intends to increase public confidence is by riding Metro daily. And he said he plans to live in an apartment near a Metro station.

He said, however, that "there is no magic about safety. Safety takes a lot of hard work."

Metro board members praised Sarles as a seasoned transit professional who will be able to quickly take over the reins at Metro and make critical decisions during the search for a permanent replacement for General Manager John B. Catoe Jr., who departs April 2.

Catoe called Sarles "an incredibly talented and experienced transit professional," adding that "the region is very fortunate to have someone that talented coming in on an interim basis." Sarles will begin work March 29 and overlap with Catoe for about a week, officials said.

Metro needs "not just a caretaker," said board member Chris Zimmerman. With 25 years of experience in public transit, Sarles "knows the business" and can ensure "we are not just drifting," Zimmerman said.

Still, Sarles made it clear that he will lead Metro only until a permanent general manager is selected -- a national and international search estimated to last six months to a year -- and that he is not a candidate for that job.

"I have been asked why would I want this job, and if I want the permanent GM job," he said. "Let me be very clear, first, that I am not a candidate for the permanent GM job. I am taking this position as the interim GM because Metro is a vital public transportation system not only in this region but as a symbol for this entire country."

Compensation

Pressed by reporters on why he would not serve as general manager, Sarles suggested that he did not want the job for the long haul: "Frankly, I just retired from New Jersey Transit. Look at the gray hair on my head. I do look forward to someday actually retiringretiring."

Sarles will make $25,000 a month during his tenure, and Metro will pay for a one-bedroom apartment for him as well as moving expenses and a benefit package that is the same as that of other Metro senior managers, said board Chairman Peter Benjamin. That salary is lower than Catoe's, presumably because of the temporary nature of the position.

Board members said that the Metro post was sought by Sarles, who retired in January as executive director of New Jersey Transit after three years heading that 11,000-member agency, which has an annual capital and operating budget of nearly $3 billion. Metro is comparable in size.

Potential candidates

Several potential candidates approached by the board said they were not interested, and other people said, essentially, "don't ask me," according to Mortimer Downey, one of two new federal members on the board.

"I can think of at least half a dozen, including me," said Downey, referring to people who turned down the interim job.

Sarles "actually brought himself to our attention," Downey said. "He had just retired from New Jersey Transit . . . so he was the kind of person who could very readily and quickly move in," he said. "The goal here was to have somebody on Day One who knew the job and could do the job."

Having grown up in North Jersey in a family that didn't own a car, Sarles said he understands the needs of people who depend on public transportation. "If I wanted to go to a movie . . . it was by bus," he said.

The board also agreed to start a series of public hearings March 22 on options, including possible fare increases, to help close a $189 million gap in the $1.4 billion operating budget for the fiscal year that begins in July.

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