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Interim Metro chief's leadership style questioned by some officials, experts

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 4, 2010; B01

Richard Sarles leaned back in his chair in his spacious office at Metro headquarters Monday, his relaxed body language and soft-spoken style an unlikely fit for the man chosen to wrestle the transit system from a downward slide.

"This place has fallen behind on its state of good repair, and it has to catch up," said Sarles, Metro's new interim general manager, in his first long media interview since taking over April 2. "We are working on the foundation of the house."

Sarles has spent hours trouble-shooting problems with front-line employees and recently issued a six-month action plan that prioritizes safety and reliability. Every day, he commutes to work on the Yellow Line from his apartment in Pentagon City.

He has "already taken a substantial role in reshaping the budget . . . and has moved quickly to understanding the safety problems we face and implementing changes," said Mortimer Downey, a federally appointed member of Metro's board of directors.

Yet Sarles, who recently stepped down as head of New Jersey Transit, has set modest targets for his tenure, while exhibiting a reticence that has led some officials and transit experts to question whether he is forceful enough to steer Metro through the budget crisis, leadership transition and critical safety decisions it faces in coming months.

"Sarles has been somewhat circumspect," said Jim Graham, a District member of the Metro board. "I don't know how much of that is an 'I-am-not-the-boss' attitude . . . or if that is his actual style."

Among Sarles's goals are filling key vacancies and improving communication between departments in an agency that he said suffers from "a silo effect."

"There are good people here," he said. "There are not enough. It's pretty thin."

On one hand, Sarles's impact is limited by his interim status -- he has a 12-month contract and did not bring any personal staff with him -- and the 65-year-old has ruled out being a candidate for the permanent job. Yet, Sarles's status as a short-timer could make him less beholden to the various political interests that drive Metro -- giving him a unique opportunity to tackle some of Metro's more unwieldy problems, transit officials and experts said.

"The riders hope that Sarles will take on some of the more intractable problems and not just be a caretaker of Metro until he leaves," said David Alpert, vice chair of the Riders' Advisory Council.

One immediate source of concern revolves around the shifting level of local jurisdiction contributions to Metro's $1.4 billion fiscal 2011 operating budget, which has a deficit of $189 million, as well as its next six-year capital program. Last month, Sarles submitted a revised 2011 budget to the board that seeks less money from local jurisdictions -- $26 million -- in contrast to the $40 million to $74 million some officials and rider groups advocated. Instead, Sarles proposed borrowing $30 million from the capital budget for preventive maintenance while upholding some service cuts, albeit at a lower level than in the original budget proposed by former general manager John B. Catoe Jr.

Although officials from Virginia jurisdictions and the District have taken steps to make larger increases in their contributions to Metro's operating funds, while maintaining their levels of capital spending on Metro, Maryland has stated that it can only afford a more modest boost to operating funds and plans to scale back its capital funding by some $30 million in both 2010 and 2011.

Sarles called his budget proposals a "point of departure" for board discussion, but Zimmerman, Graham and others are concerned that Sarles is letting Maryland off the hook financially.

"The Sarles budget isn't really an improvement," said Zimmerman, adding that although Sarles is new on the job, "there has been a tendency for people in that position to be overly deferential" to the board chairman, who is currently Peter Benjamin of Maryland.

If Maryland cuts its capital contributions, and the other jurisdictions follow suit, according to Metro's funding formula, "it will be the beginning of the end of Metro," Zimmerman said. "That is not hyperbole."

Sarles acknowledged that borrowing from the capital budget can be a "slippery slope."

"None of these choices are things we necessarily want to do," he said. "These are unusual financial times. At the same time, we have to run the service."

Sarles's six-month action plan is focused on improving accountability for safety and boosting Metro's reliability -- data that Sarles said he looks at each day soon after he arrives at work, about 7 a.m.

He calls himself a hands-on manager and has made regular Friday field trips to talk with Metro employees about their concerns. On one recent visit to a Metro facility, he learned that a problem with parts delivery was affecting rail service and immediately convened a meeting of officials to come up with a plan for improving the procurement.

"I am approaching this from the point of view that there are things here that have to be fixed," he said. "I am cutting through the clutter, if you will."

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