By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 27, 2011; 8:07 PM
Richard Sarles was named the permanent chief executive of Metro on Thursday with a mandate to turn around the troubled 34-year-old transit agency.
Metro board members and transit experts said that fixing the system is a daunting task, even for an industry veteran such as Sarles, the former chief of New Jersey Transit who has been Metro's interim leader for 10 months.
Rider advocates, union workers and supporters from the private sector said Sarles must act quickly on multiple issues - improving customer service, addressing employee concerns and communicating his goals for Metro's future to the public.
Metro union head Jackie Jeter said Sarles faces "a lack of trust in WMATA's ability to restore safety to the system. To regain trust and turn the system around, management - from Sarles all the way down - needs to listen to workers and consider their recommendations."
Others said that Sarles must spend more time explaining to the public the competing pressures on Metro as he struggles to overhaul the system.
"His honeymoon will be only a few more months," said Jim Dinegar, president of the Greater Washington Board of Trade. "He will be accountable now. It's on his watch."
As Metro's interim chief, Sarles won over Metro advocates in Congress and local jurisdictions as well as the Metro board, which unanimously voted to give him the job.
Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), a critic of what she has called negligent safety practices under former Metro chief John Catoe, this week lauded Sarles for having "a commitment to creating the culture of safety we need at Metro." Sarles has "personal integrity, commitment to mission and the skills and experience to operationalize what needs to be done," she said.
Sarles said he offered to stay on in December with the encouragement of Metro staff and local officials. He signed a three-year contract that will pay him $350,000 a year, tackling an assignment some board members joked that he was crazy to accept.
One of his first tasks is filling key vacancies on Metro's staff, including a deputy general manager and some top engineering jobs. Sarles to date has been "constrained" in hiring and firing people in senior positions, said Mortimer Downey, who represents the federal government on the board. Sarles's status as the interim chief has made it difficult for him to attract talented and skilled staff, Downey said.
On Thursday, Sarles pledged to find "the best and brightest" professionals to work for Metro. He said Dave Kubicek, the acting deputy, would be a candidate for deputy general manager. Sarles also said he would work to fill holes in Metro's workforce, particularly a shortage of bus drivers and train operators.
Customer relations should be another priority for Sarles, several rider advocates said.
"I haven't seen any changes in customer service" under Sarles, said David Alpert, a member of Metro's Riders' Advisory Council. "For an organization that wants to build up customers' confidence, being so closed is not in their best interest."
Sarles agreed that Metro must be more responsive. He said Metro will conduct an independent assessment this year of its customer call center.
Sarles has won praise for digging into problem areas for Metro - bringing in an independent team to investigate escalator and elevator maintenance, a source of frequent customer complaints, and also launching a monthly "vital signs" report that measures performance.
Such probes will continue. "You can't keep those things secret," Sarles said.
Sarles's decision last month to approve random bag inspections among Metro passengers was made without consulting riders, drawing criticism from system users, civil libertarians and some board members.
Kathy Porter, who was sworn in Thursday as a new board member from Maryland, said she was concerned that Metro had not solicited public comment before starting the inspections. She said that adding more police patrols might offer more security.
Sarles is also expected to continue what he calls a "nuts and bolts" focus on making safety repairs and upgrading Metro's deteriorating equipment, board members said.
"The best customer relations you can have is a railroad that runs," Downey said.
Sarles said he will make it a priority to replace about 1,500 potentially faulty track circuits, one of several recommendations that the National Transportation Safety Board made in July as a result of the 2009 Red Line crash. He said Metro must also conduct an analysis of its train control system before train operators can stop using the manual system and return to automatic controls.
Sarles also said customers should expect frequent weekend track work for maintenance, and that he intends to look into problems obtaining replacement parts.
Sarles said he plans to push this year for special bus lanes to speed bus traffic, and in the medium term he will seek more eight-car trains to ease congestion.
But he acknowledged major hurdles, including making tough choices on long-term capital investments at a time when funding for Metro - including $150 million in annual authorized spending - has come under the scrutiny of budget-cutters on Capitol Hill.
"That funding is the lifeblood" of a safe, reliable Metro service for the next generation, Sarles said. "If we don't get that, it's devastating."
Sarles will be working with a board that underwent significant turnover on Thursday. It voted in a new chair, Catherine Hudgins of Fairfax, who replaces Peter Benjamin of Maryland. It also got four new members: former Amtrak head Tom Downs of the District, Arlington County Board Vice Chair Mary Hynes, D.C. Council member Tommy Wells and former Takoma Park mayor Kathy Porter.