For Metro's interim chief, tenure may turn into tryout

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 13, 2011; 6:08 PM

After nearly 10 months on the job, Metro Interim General Manager Richard Sarles is so media-shy that he's rarely recognized by riders on his daily Yellow Line commute from Pentagon City to Metro headquarters. But despite a low profile, the reserved and deliberate former New Jersey Transit chief is earning mostly high marks from Metro board members and top safety investigators for making headway on safety and other problems facing the transit agency.

Metro is facing a major leadership transition - as many as eight of 14 board members have left or are departing, and uncertainty looms over whom the board will select as the new permanent general manager in coming weeks. But, board members say, the silver-haired retiree who arrived as a temporary chief has emerged as an executive with enough skill and vision to continue running the agency, if necessary.

"Rich was not a caretaker," said Peter Benjamin, chairman of the Metro board. "Rich in fact did extremely well in taking a long view" on core issues such as safety, maintenance and Metro's capital budget, he said. "Rich Sarles . . . acted as though he was going to be there forever."

Sarles's quiet, nuts-and-bolts style has been criticized as not ideal in a job that requires a high degree of political finesse and the ability to lobby Congress and state and local officials from several jurisdictions.

The view among some board members is that Sarles "hasn't had the public presence out there in the community that some people expect," said member Jeffrey C. McKay, who said he does not share that opinion. "You can't do the stuff he's done and be out there politicking" and glad-handing, he said.

Sitting at a conference table in his Gallery Place office, Sarles is characteristically coy about his feelings about staying on at Metro, declining to answer questions on the general manager search. But asked how he likes the unwieldy job he stepped into in March after his predecessor, John B. Catoe Jr., abruptly announced under fire that he was leaving, Sarles smiles.

"I may be a little nuts - I'm actually enjoying it," he said of running the nation's second-busiest transit system, which carries people on about 1.2 million bus and rail trips every weekday.

Sarles calls his first few months of delving into the issues at Metro "trying." But he said he feels "there's a little bit more of the atmosphere of moving forward" among Metro's more than 10,000 employees.

Management experience

The board has made clear that it cast a wide net in the search for Metro's new chief executive officer, seeking above all a stellar manager, with or without a transit industry background.

The board's four-person search committee, led by Benjamin, is poised to bring three candidates before the full board soon. The search committee has withheld the candidates' names, saying that confidentiality is needed, given their current positions, although a source close to the search said two have transit experience and a third, from the corporate private sector, does not.

Several board members, including three on the search committee, said Sarles has exceeded their expectations in his interim role.

"He's been very influential in getting hold of the place and more than stabilizing it but dealing with some longer-term issues," said Mortimer Downey, a federally appointed board member who is on the search committee. Downey, a veteran transit expert, has known Sarles for more than 30 years and took his name to the board as a candidate for the interim job.

Sarles agreed when he took the job to stay as long as the board required to find a replacement for Catoe, with an initial one-year contract, Downey said. "There is every potential to extend it as we need to," Benjamin said.

Budget, safety issues

Whoever takes over at Metro will face huge challenges - including a shortage of billions in long-term capital funding needed not only to upgrade the system but also to expand its capacity to meet the region's growing need for transit in coming decades.

Sarles has made safety and repair of the 40-year old system his most important focus, acknowledging that there is much more to do.

"There is a big catch-up going on here, and it's going to go on for years," Sarles said. "You've got an old, old system really," he said. "It's the first time it's seeing the rebuilding that you have to do."

The new general manager must also oversee the rebuilding of Metro's staff, which lacks several mid- and high-level managers, including a chief of rail operations.

Sarles appointed a new chief safety officer, filled 12 vacancies in the safety department and has "embedded" safety officers at major facilities. He conducted a safety survey of Metro's employees as the first step in creating a more robust, bottom-up "safety culture." The survey found that many employees didn't report violations in part because they thought management wouldn't act on the problems.

The highlight of his tenure, Sarles said, was when Deborah A.P. Hersman, head of the National Transportation Safety Board, testified in September that the Metro system is safer than it was before the June 2009 Red Line crash that killed nine people. Sarles has set aside more than $30 million and agreed to prioritize implementation of all of the recommendations it has received from the NTSB, including replacing nearly 1,500 potentially faulty track circuit modules and, starting in 2013, replacing Metro's older 1000 series cars, which offer little protection in a crash.

Hersman, who blamed the fatal Red Line crash in part on Metro's failure to take safety seriously, praised Metro's leaders at the hearing for expanding their primary focus from keeping trains running to also keeping passengers safe.

"Anything that has to do with the NTSB recommendations or other related safety issues are moving forward much faster" under Sarles, Benjamin said.

No 'static posture'

Catherine M. Hudgins, a board member from Fairfax County, said that Metro's "relationship with the NTSB has improved tremendously."

To increase the pace and scope of maintenance, Sarles has brought in a consultant to improve management of the capital program, for example by requiring employees to pack multiple projects into regular weekend work.

In response to customer complaints, Sarles instituted a performance scorecard for Metro and ordered an independent assessment of the agency's escalators and elevators that uncovered serious maintenance deficiencies.

At the same time, he has been willing to be direct with the board and make controversial decisions. He approved random bag inspections after Metro Transit Police Chief Michael Taborn asked for his approval and Metro's legal counsel said that the inspections were lawful.

Sarles said that with Boston, New York and New Jersey transit organizations conducting similar inspections, Washington would have been remiss not to follow suit. "Here we are sitting in the nation's capital. The nation's financial capital does this. . . . I'd have to have my head in the sand to not say this makes sense," he said.

"You don't want to sit in a static posture when the folks who want to do harm to you are changing their game all the time," he said, adding that he was in New York during the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.

"These terrorists changed the game and destroyed the place, and my friends died in that, and so I take this very seriously," he said. Despite criticism from riders and activists, Sarles said the searches are here to stay - as long as he is in charge.

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