For interim Metro manager, tenure may become a tryout

Metro Interim General Manager Richard Sarles commutes to work.
Metro Interim General Manager Richard Sarles commutes to work. (Tracy A. Woodward)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 14, 2011

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 between Pentagon City and 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 issues 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 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 including 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 Jeff C. McKay of Fairfax County, 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 on 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 smiled.

"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 it 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.

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