Metro's new permanent chief Sarles: 'We have so much catching up to do'

By Robert McCartney
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 29, 2011; 6:52 PM

In less than a month, Metro's chief executive Richard Sarles has gone from being a quiet caretaker awaiting retirement to a permanent leader charged with rescuing the transit system from years of mismanagement and neglect.

The change has been so abrupt that it inevitably arouses suspicion that Metro, for the umpteenth time, is protecting the status quo when it really needs a revolution.

After all, it's hard to adjust to the idea of Sarles, 65, as a transformational CEO and general manager. After taking office as interim chief in April, the white-haired, craggy-faced engineer said repeatedly that he wasn't interested in remaining. He started to change his mind in the fall and told the board definitively only in late December that he'd like to stay on.

Nevertheless, for now I'm willing to give Sarles the benefit of the doubt. I do so partly because in an interview Thursday, he made a persuasive case that he's started to fix what's broken in Metro despite his low profile since arriving.

In particular, Sarles has methodically taken steps to start fulfilling what I think is the CEO's most important task: getting the Metro staff to be more consistent and accountable about improving safety and reliability.

"I think I demonstrated just coming in here that I was no caretaker, even on an interim basis," Sarles said. "Changing the safety culture here is a transformational event for this place, and we've made a good start on that. Quickening the pace, in terms of restoring this place to a state of good repair, is transformational."

Still, Sarles must deliver steady, visible advances in Metro's performance. Otherwise, the crisis in public confidence in Metro that crystallized with the 2009 Red Line crash will continue.

The region can't afford to let the transit system slide further. It's the core of our transportation network, and its success and ultimate growth are vital to controlling congestion and pollution as the area's population expands.

Metro Director Mort Downey - a former U.S. deputy secretary of transportation who's known Sarles for years and helped bring him to Metro - said Sarles is the right pick because the system just needs to work on the basics for a while.

"This is blocking and tackling. This is not throwing a 'Hail Mary' pass," Downey said. "There's a time when shaking up and charismatic leadership and turning the place upside down to move it to the next level can be the right thing. I think where we are, where Metro is, we need to first build a level from which you can go to the next level."

To his credit, Sarles is pretty candid about the problems he's now being paid $350,000 a year to overcome. That in itself is a refreshing switch at Metro, where managers and directors spent far too long blaming troubles just on a shortage of money. Sarles said matter-of-factly that the system has not been maintained adequately "over many, many years."

Moreover, without naming names, he pointed a finger at previous management practices. In the past, Sarles said, Metro employees were unable to do necessary upkeep on rail lines because of a desire to keep trains running as much as possible even when planned service outages were needed for maintenance.

Workers "saw the condition of the system. They knew this stuff had to be done, and yet they were constrained from it," Sarles said. "I basically said this place is not in good shape. It's not getting better. It hasn't been maintained well, and we've got to step this up."

Sarles has ordered more planned outages, with more maintenance packed into each. It's inconvenient for passengers, but better than unplanned disruptions caused by breakdowns.

He said a similar, misguided emphasis on quick fixes was to blame for Metro's notoriously malfunctioning escalators. "There was pressure [to] get them back operational, [so] you didn't get to the root of the problem," Sarles said. "We have so much catching up to do."

On safety, Sarles's progress in adopting reforms urged by the National Transportation Safety Board has drawn praise from both the board and one of Metro's most powerful past critics: Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md).

Sarles insisted that he "totally," "absolutely" had no intention of staying when he first arrived. He changed his mind partly because of positive feedback from staff and partly because of ambition to make a mark on the transit system that most influences national policy.

"I spent my entire life in this business. This particular organization . . . is very important to the rest of the industry," Sarles said. "There's a lot of aides to congressmen and senators who are riding every day. Truly, we influence here in Washington what the perception is of public transit."

I shudder to think that anything's national reputation would rely on Metro. But the region will benefit if that incentive leads Sarles to shore up the system's foundations.

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