Now at the helm of Metro, Richard Sarles faces daunting challenges

Wednesday, January 26, 2011; 7:19 PM

UPON TAKING OVER as Metro's top executive on an interim basis last year, Richard Sarles instructed one and all to regard him as a stopgap who'd be in the job only as long as it took the Metro board to select a permanent replacement. He spoke too soon.

By all accounts, the board is scheduled to vote Thursday that Mr. Sarles should stay put; in addition to being made the permanent general manager, he is to assume the title of Metro's chief executive. Thus he assumes full-time, wide-ranging and indefinite responsibility for what may be the most troubled mass-transit system in America. Congratulations, we suppose, are in order.

Mr. Sarles, 65, previously head of New Jersey Transit, a system comparable in size to Metro, brings qualifications and experience to the job. In addition, he seems to have inspired the confidence of the transit agency's overseers on the Metro board, who have taken it almost as an article of faith that his reforms so far will pay ongoing dividends in terms of safety and reliability. We hope they're right.

Those goals - keeping passengers and workers safe, and running buses and trains dependably and on time - are a function of deep-rooted practices and cultural mores in any workforce; in Metro's case, there is evidence that a pattern of bad habits has developed over the years; it will take years more to impart good ones.

At this stage, it would be premature and unwise to credit Mr. Sarles with more than good luck for the fact that there have been no deaths or serious rail mishaps since he took over 10 months ago. True, the rate of passenger injuries on the rails fell by about 10 percent in the first 10 months of last year - a period roughly coinciding with Mr. Sarles's tenure - compared with the same period in 2009, which included the terrible June train accident. But in the same span, the number of passengers injured on Metro buses almost doubled.

In keeping with the recommendations of the National Transportation Safety Board, Mr. Sarles has named a safety officer and instituted a package of reforms designed to ensure best practices and minimize mishaps over time. For now, though, his most immediate challenges will be financial.

Metro is begging for extra funds from Virginia, Maryland and the District to close a $72 million shortfall in its $1.4 billion budget. That sum will be difficult to squeeze from severely cash-strapped localities struggling with their own steep deficits. Faced with a shortage of bus drivers and rail operators, Metro is paying way too much overtime, further straining the agency's resources. Recruitment of sufficient numbers of qualified candidates, as always, presents a particular challenge.

In theory, Mr. Sarles will be helped by the board's recent recognition that it should stick to long-term and strategic questions and leave the agency's management to him, without the parochial meddling that was once common. His brief is daunting: to restore an aging, underfunded, accident-prone system to its once-proud status as a national gem.

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