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Richard A. White
Q & A With Richard A. White

Friday, Nov. 3, 2000, Noon EST

As general manager and chief executive officer of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, Richard A. White is responsible for the operation of Metrobus and Metrorail.

White has led WMATA since 1996. He came to Washington from San Francisco, where he was the general manager of the Bay Area Rapid Transit system. Before that, he worked for the New Jersey Transit Corporation and was a program analyst with what is now the Federal Transit Administration.

For more information, visit the Metrorail Special Report.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

Bethesda: What's the deal with the Purple Line? Will we ever see it? How long would it take to construct? Where, approximately, would it run to/from? Who is responsible to getting the $$ rolling on this one?

Richard A. White: The state of Maryland is in the process of conducting a comprehensive study of alternatives for travel along the entire length of the Beltway. This study is looking at road options, such as the expansion of the Beltway by at least one lane in each direction, and at transit options. The transit options include various alignments, both inside and outside the Beltway, as well as along the Beltway. They should be narrowing down their options sometime next year. As a part of this process there will be continued opportunity for public review and comment. I encourage you to contact the Maryland State Highway Administration, which is conducting this study, for further details.

DC: How do you get to work?

Richard A. White: Most days, I take the Orange line from Vienna to Metro headquarters. During those other days that my schedule doesn't permit, I drive to work. I find that riding the trains gives me a firsthand look at how we're doing, and it gives me an opportunity to talk to some of our front-line people, such as stations managers and rail operators. That is usually the best feedback I can get about how we're meeting our customers' needs.

washingtonpost.com: The Maryland State Highway Administration's Web site is www.sha.stat.md.us

Silver Spring, MD: I use the Red Line from Wheaton to Metro Center. Several years ago, you stated (on a radio show, or perhaps quoted in the Post) that new Metro rail cars arriving by 2000 or 2001 would be used to enable all Red Line trains to go to the end of the line (Glenmont or Shady Grove), and that the current situation of alternate trains going only as far as (in my case) Silver Spring station, mostly during rush-hour periods, would thus be alleviated. I am still waiting. What is the situation? As you know, those of us who live beyond Silver Spring or Grosvenor stations and use Metro during rush hour have to pay considerably higher fares for worse (less frequent) service. Thanks.

Richard A. White: We do have a contract for 192 new railcars, the first of which are scheduled to be placed into service by the end of December of this year. The cars will arrive at a rate of approximately 10 cars per month, and it will take until mid calendar year 2002 for all the cars to be delivered. The first 32 of these cars are needed to operate the Branch Avenue extension of the Green Line, which opens to the public in January 2001. We are in the process of developing a recommendation for our Board of Directors as to how to best utilize the remaining railcars in that shipment of 192. This analysis will be a part of our Fiscal Year 2002 operating budget proposal. Given that the Red Line is our busiest, it is reasonable to expect that some amount of these cars will be utilized to provide additional service for that line. Stay tuned for further details. Thanks.

Courthouse: In the morning, the orange line trains are so crowded that I sometimes can't get on. My solution has been to ride west to East Falls Church or Ballston, then get on a less-crowded eastbound train (which is jammed by the time it gets back to Courthouse). This is an inane solution, but what else can I do? Are these trains ever going to get less crowded?

Richard A. White: Take a look at my previous answer concerning the Red Line! We expect that once we have our full complement of 192 rail cars, we will be able to improve service on all five lines of the Metrorail system. Believe me, as an Orange Line user myself, I know exactly what you're talking about. As I said in the previous reply, we hope to make improvements as part of the 2002 budget process. Thanks for your patience and your patronage.

Capital Heights, Maryland: The other day I drove to three stations looking for a parking space; Cheverly, Landover and Deanwood and at each one of these stations there are at least 20 to 30 maybe even more guarantee parking spaces that are not being used. I can't understand why metro had to take away so many parking spaces for guarantee parking spaces, if you were to sit at these stations you will find that guarantee parking spaces are not utilized. I think it is really ridiculous for passengers to have to get to these stations no later than 7:00am on any given week day in order to get a park while all the guarantee parking spaces are free. Someone really should listen to the passengers, if you ride the trains on any given day you will hear people either complaining about the parking or the fact that during rush hour the trains continue to be overcrowded. Metro really should take a second look into this matter. Does metro really care about the passengers or are you out just to make a quick buck!!!!

washingtonpost.com: For more information, see yesterday's article, "As Space Tightens, Parking Rules Change" by Lyndsey Layton.

Richard A. White: We hear you. This past Wednesday, we instituted a new "reserved" parking program that replaces the "guaranteed" parking program we had in place for the past two years. Under this new program, a certain number of spaces (no more than 15% of the total)in each of our parking lots will be reserved until 10 a.m. After 10 a.m., those spots will be open to everyone. We made this policy shift in response to concerns from customers like you about problems they faced finding adequate parking in our lots and garages. We have over 40,000 parking spaces and will be opening up another 7,500 with our Green Line extension to Branch Avenue. In addition, we will be opening a new parking garage in Vienna in January 2001 that will add 1,500 spaces. There are plans to build new spaces at Shady Grove and Grosvenor in Maryland, and at West Falls Church and Franconia-Springfield in Virginia. It seems that as soon as we build new parking garages, they fill to capacity almost overnight. We will continue to analyze our customers' parking needs, while at the same time closely examining our bus service in an effort to improve rail system access.

NW DC: What is the procedure for Metrobuses when two or more arrive at one bus stop? On Wednesday evening, I was waiting at a bus stop in Georgetown. One bus arrived and then another. The second bus (the one I needed to catch) pulled along the side of the first bus (instead of behind, there was room), so the driver did not see me and kept on. Thus, I had to wait another hour for the bus.

Richard A. White: We apologize for that oversight and the inconvenience you experienced. Our procedure should dictate that buses follow behind each other and that our drivers should make certain there are no passengers left behind. In addition, we supervise our buses try to minimize the "bunching" of buses. Sometimes due to traffic congestion, this situation is unavoidable. Nevertheless, it is not acceptable to have any customer left behind at a bus stop. Again, we are sorry, and hope you will continue to be a loyal Metro customer.

Bethesda: Two questions:
1 - I understand that the escalators need repair. What I don't understand is why one will be closed for a few weeks, work for awhile, then be closed again. I'm a little wary of getting on escalators that were being worked on last week, when I know they will be fixed again.

2 - What's the story with the water in the stations? I remember reading a story about a few months ago, but nothing has really happened. Is this a problem that can be fixed? The Bethesda station looks like a cave with all the water dripping onto the tracks.

Thanks for your time

washingtonpost.com: For more information, see the July 13, 2000, article by Lyndsey Layton, "Water in Metro's Basement."

Richard A. White: We are in the process of completely rebuilding 1/3 of our 557 escalators, those being the ones that are the worst performers in our system. We schedule this work in an attempt to minimize the amount of time a customer experiences an out-of-service escalator at a given station. Sometimes due to unavoidable maintenance conditions, there may be more than one escalator out of service at a given station at one time. This is not by choice or by design, but because of circumstances. Also, because many of our escalators are aging, a repaired escalator will work for a period of time and then might experience another in-service failure shortly thereafter. We are working hard and bringing the necessary resources to bear to tackle this problem, which we know is frustrating for our customers. As for water in the tunnels, while a certain amount of water has always seeped in, especially along some of the older sections of the Red Line, we recognize that the situation has worsened in recent years. In some sections of the Red Line, we pump thousands of gallons from water collection systems every day. We are increasing our resources to deal with this issue in the short term, while over the long term we will be designing and implementing a permanent retrofit to those sections of our tunnels that are most in need of a new engineering solution. Both of these conditions, escalators out of service and water in the tunnels, are a product of an aging system. We hope our customers will be patient as we move aggressively to manage these and other "aging" issues. You can help us by expressing your support for an adequate level of funding for Metro to your elected officials in Maryland so that we can do our best to ensure that our wonderful regional system is capable of delivering the kind of service that our customers expect and deserve.

Arlington: Will the trains really go back to automatic control by the end of this month? Seems like we've heard this promise before....

Richard A. White: Yes, I have a high degree of confidence that we will indeed be returning to automatic operation by the end of this month. I am hoping to make a public announcement as to the exact date of return to automatic operation during our November 9th Board meeting. Based on a meeting on this topic we had as recently as this morning, we are optimistic that we can return to automatic operation on Thanksgiving Day. This shift back to automatic will mean smoother rides for our customers, which we know has been long anticipated. We thank you and the thousands of other Metro customers for bearing with us. Safety was our top priority throughout this entire process, and we did not feel comfortable returning to automatic operation until we were absolutely convinced that it was safe to do so.

Rockville, MD: Mr. White:
Just a thank you from a regular patron for a terrific public transit system, even with problems, the envy of many other big cities. I want to also say I especially appreciate the SmarTrip program and encourage everybody to use it. Its great also for quickly exiting the parking lot. Keep up the good work.

Richard A. White: You don't know how good it is to hear that kind of praise for our system. I have lived, worked, and traveled in other parts of the country, and I can tell you that our Metro system here in the Capital Region beats all the others, hand down. We are dealing with the dual problems of growing (ridership on bus and rail is booming) and aging (our bus service is 27 years old and rail almost 25) pains, but we are committed to maintaining our reputation as the nation's #1 transit system. We have distributed more than 110,000 SmarTrip cards to our customers and it has been a smashing success. This is one of the biggest conveniences that we have been able to introduce to our customers in the recent past, and we look forward to more technological enhancements in the future. Thanks again for your kind words and your support.

Arlington: You hear a lot of complaining, so let me pay you a compliment. I do the bus/subway combo everyday and am continually impressed with the positive interactions I have with Metro employees, bus drivers especially.

On a number of occasions, I have been getting off the escalator only to see my bus taking off from the station. Once the driver realizes more people are coming, they often stop to take on the additional passengers, even though one could argue they could just leave us standing for the next bus. When I thanked one driver for doing this, his response was "Hey, you are the customers. I am here to help you." What a great attitude.

Richard A. White: Metro has more than 9,000 employees who take great pride in the service they provide every single day. Although we are not perfect, I am very proud of the quality of our workforce and their commitment to customer service. It is gratifying to hear from customers such as yourself who recognize the fine work of our employees. Thank you for the compliment and we will be working hard to maintain that level of service!

Beltsville, Md.: What happened to the 30 second guideline for the doors? It seems that after the first 24 hours, it fell by the wayside.

It was one of the smartest ideas I had heard from Metro in years.

Richard A. White: The article in the Post several weeks ago that made reference to shorter "dwell times" was an outgrowth of discussions our staff was having with our Board about how we could better manage the thousands of additional customers we are seeing every day on our platforms and in our railcars with the ever-increasing ridership increases. The extent to which we can reduce the amount of time it takes to load and unload passengers at each station, especially during peak periods at rush hour, contributes to a more efficient rail system and a higher level of performance for our customers. However, we would never implement an operational policy that would cause undue inconvenience for our customers. In essence, what we are doing now is paying attention to the "seconds" that transpire during each stations stop to determine if any improvements can be made in moving passengers more efficiently as platforms and railcars become more crowded.

New Carrollton, MD: Dear Mr. White,
Why do we have to walk down the stairs during rush and non-rush at the New Carrollton Metro Station? It has been almost a month since both up and down escalators have been working at the same time. Either one is working and that is for passengers entering the station. When exiting the train we have to either take the stairs or the elevator which only hold a few depending on the size of the persons. You have elderly people that have to walk down those cemented stairs with a crowd of people trying to walk down the stairs all at once. Sir this is very disturbing to see this matter go on for so long. So I would like to know what are you going to do about this issue that has been brought to your attention? Thank you from a faithful metro passenger and concerned resident of Prince George's County.

Richard A. White: We recognize the frustration our passengers feel any time one of our elevators or escalators is out of service for a long period of time. You may have noticed that the elevator on the Route 50 side of New Carrollton was recently returned to service after a several-month-long rehabilitation process. What are you referring to is the repair of one of the two mezzanine-to-platform escalators which is also on the Route 50 side of the station. It is my understanding that the escalator needs only a final safety inspection before it will be returned to service. Meantime, we have been running the other escalator next to it in the "up" direction to provide the most convenient level of service for our customers until both are operating again. Again, I would only ask that you continue to bear with us as we do the best we can in repairing and rehabilitation our 557 escalators as quickly as we possibly can.

Rockville, Md: Why did you offer the "Guaranteed Parking" in the first place, if you never planned to enforce it nor provide enough spaces? Just to increase revenues?

Why are the non-guaranteed parkers more important than the Guaranteed parker who pays extra money to Metro each month? You will take our money, but don't care about whether we get a place to park? You say "tough, go home and take the bus"? After we dish-out and extra $20?

Richard A. White: We offered the "guaranteed" parking program in an effort to provide a better level of parking availability to our rail customers. Unfortunately, we found that in some parking lots, there were still many unused "guaranteed" spaces well into the morning, while in other lots people who had paid for guaranteed parking couldn't find a space at their station. So we have modified the program to a "reserved" status in an effort to balance those situations. We will continue to monitor parking at our lots and make adjustments as necessary to try to meet our customers' needs. We urge you to call us at 202-962-1066 any time you experience a problem with parking at any of our facilities. If any of our employees told a customer, "tough tootsies, go home and take the bus," as was reported by Lyndsey Layton in this newspaper yesterday, I apologize. We don't accept that kind of behavior, if it indeed happened, by any of our employees.

20037: What is Metro's privacy policy regarding the tracking of Smartcard usage? I know that it keeps track of where I go and when, but who has access to that data?

Richard A. White: Dear Mr. or Ms. 20037, people who hold our SmarTrip cards have the choice of registering their card with us or not. If they register it, we are able to cancel their card in the event that it is lost or misplaced, much like your credit or debit card. Although it is voluntary, our experience is that almost 99% of our customers choose to register their card with us. Our commitment is that we do not provide any information about our customers to any third parties, and that we use information as to the trip patterns of our customers purely for the purposes of helping us to better schedule and operate our system. We do not track the traveling patterns of individual customers who register their card with us.

Beltsville, Md.: Mr. White,

It has been my experience with Metro that after a large event (DC United, Redskins, etc.) a number of empty Metro trains deadhead straight to the central station to move the large crowds.

For most of the Capitals home games this year, this has not been true. I have arrived on the Greenbelt platform only to wait for a Yellow line train, then wait for another Green line train.

Has this policy been abandoned?

Richard A. White: I'm not sure I understand the specifics of the situation you're describing, but what I can tell you is that we have not in any way changed our policy in how we schedule trains to move the large number of people who attend sports and other special events at places such as the MCI Center and RFK Stadium via Metro. We will continue to provide those "deadhead" (out of service) trains to the central location as crowds are letting out in order to move people away from the venue and to their destination as quickly and efficiently as possible. Now if we only do something to make sure the Caps resume their winning ways!

Alexandria, VA: What can you say to critics who have a legitimate case that public transit is no more efficient than driving?

A bus going downtown from a suburb sits in the same traffic that I do from the comfort of my car. The subway works if you want to go from the suburbs to the center of downtown - but don't try to get from Silver Spring to Rosslyn. And, above all this, you have to schedule your commute. Whereas, with a car, I can get in my car when I'm ready.

I'm sorry, but it seems like an idealistic and out-of-date theory that just hasn't worked.

Richard A. White: The ability of our region to support an adequate level of mobility for our residents depends upon a properly balanced transportation system that includes both roads and transit. Neither one can do the job alone. To out this into perspective, our rail system carries the equivalent of 32 lanes of highway traffic during each rush hour. Can you imagine how congested, or shall I say hopelessly gridlocked, our region would be without our transit system. I do recognize that transit services are not for everybody. However, the extent to which we can encourage more people to use transit services frees up our road space for those who must or prefer to use the automobile. I believe that investments in transit services are extremely wise investments, but I also understand that we need to invest in our road system, as well. This is not an "either/or" proposition. We must invest in both.

Gaithersburg,MD: As a regular rider to and from Shady Grove, I have noticed an increasingly tense situation in the drop off area on the 355 side. Cars frequently double park or hang out into the drive-thru lane to collect passengers or wait. This creates honking horns and yells from other drivers. I have seen countless cursing matches and near fist fights as many drivers vie for very tight space. I would suggest you have metro police take a look and perhaps post an officer in this area to keep cars moving and keep the peace. thx.

Richard A. White: Unfortunately we have seen similar occurrences at other stations besides Shady Grove. Our customers must always be aware that these "kiss and ride" areas are designed for immediate drop-off and pick-up. They are not designed for extended use or double parking. Like the drop-off areas at airports, there must be an expedited and orderly movement of automobiles and passengers at these kiss-and-ride locations. I will ask our transit police department to take a look at the Shady Grove situation. Thanks for bringing it to our attention.

Arlington: When will Smartcard or at least farecard readers be available on buses?

Richard A. White: The good news is, we expect to award a contract for the purchase of new fareboxes for our buses by the end of this calendar year. These fareboxes will be designed to accept SmarTrip cards, as well as cash. We are evaluating whether they should accept magnetic stripe cards, as well. Within two years of the contract award, these new fareboxes should be fully installed on the entire Metrobus fleet. In addition, the various county-based bus systems are interested in using this contract to supply their bus fleets, as well. Our goal is to have a seamless method of paying for transit fares on Metrobus, Metrorail, and county bus systems, as well as the two commuter rail systems (VRE and MARC). Stay tuned for more details in the weeks and months ahead.

washingtonpost.com: Thanks for joining us. Sorry we could not get to all the questions, but we hope to have you back in the future.

Richard A. White: You're very welcome. We are happy to have had the opportunity to answer customer concerns again today. Have a great weekend, everyone, and we'll be back here again soon to respond to more Metro customers!

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