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

Wednesday, Dec. 6 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.

washingtonpost.com: Good afternoon, Mr. White, and thanks for joining us today. Hidden away on washingtonpost.com is a transcript from March 31, 1998, when you were a guest on one of Bob Levey's first online shows. It seems like so long ago that people were concerned with the opening of the Glenmont station and the Green Line Shortcut! Looking back a couple of years, what are some of the best changes that have been made, and what problems do you expect to linger for years to come?

Richard A. White: Thanks for a good opening question. Obviously, what I'm most pleased about is the significant ridership growth that we have experienced over the past three years. We've opened all of our fast-track stations on or before schedule, and under budget. In addition, we have introduced a number of new technologies which have been embraced by our customers, such as SmarTrip cards, acceptance of credit/debit cards, the Ride Guide, our web page and all of its recent enhancements, and, most recently, our train arrival signs. As for challenges that won't be solved overnight, what comes to my mind is our escalator challenge, our system rehabilitation challenge, and our ability to keep pace with capacity to support our continued ridership growth.

Cleveland Park: When will we see SmartCard readers in metro buses? I'm a frequent rail user, but avoid the buses because I never have a dime and dollar bill on me!
Also, good job on the decision to buy cleaner-burning NG buses. The diesel smell and fumes aren't a big selling point, either!

Richard A. White: We will be recommending the award of a contract for new bus fareboxes that will accept the SmarTrip card to our Board of Directors on December 14th. Subject to their approval, the contract will commence immediately. The major milestones are as follows: a prototype farebox for factory testing by late Summer 2001, a farebox for limited testing on our buses by late Fall 2001, and subject to these testing approvals, the beginning of installation on our buses by Fall 2002, with completion hopefully by December 2002. This is a very exciting step that we are taking, and will further bond the linkages between our bus and rail systems. We are leading the country in the application of this technology. As for CNG buses, we are proceeding with the purchase of 100 such buses, with the scheduled delivery by December 2001/January 2002.

Arlington, VA: Is there any way to get from a Metro stop to Dulles Airport? I know about West Falls Church but there seems to be only a private shuttle service there?

Richard A. White: Effective December 4th, we initiated a new bus service running from our L'Enfant Plaza Metrorail station in the District of Columbia, connecting to our Rosslyn Metrorail station, and proceeding out to Dulles Airport, with an intermediate stop in Herndon. This new service is designed specifically to link under-employed District residents with jobs and job opportunities in the Dulles Corridor of Northern Virginia. Fairfax County's bus system, known as the Fairfax Connector, also serves the Dulles Corridor with an extensive amount of service, both at West Falls Church Metrorail station and at the Tyson's Corner transportation center.

Vienna, VA: Hello, Mr. White. Why has metro delayed so long in getting 8-car trains in operation? The stations were designed for them, ridership has been growing for years, and the manual train operations of the last 18-19 months would have been a good time for train operators to practice stopping at the precise 8-car points>

washingtonpost.com: The article about Metro's plan to test-drive longer trains can be found here.

Richard A. White: Our rail platforms are 600 feet in length, and our eight-car train set is an equivalent 600 feet. Therefore, there are a number of issues we have to be concerned about regarding the use of eight-car trains. Beyond the station issue, we need to be concerned about an adequate supply of power for our trains, and about the signaling system that controls our train movement. Just this week, we began a limited test of eight-car trains in non-revenue service. This will help us to answer some questions as we make this evaluation. By the way, in response to a recent letter to the editor in The Post, we are unable to run seven-car trains as our trains are designed to operate only as "married" pairs of two cars. I believe somewhere in our future will be plans to operate eight-car trains on a regular basis; I just don't think it will be able to happen immediately.

Downtown DC: Re: new Metro station canopies
When is construction supposed to start on these? I know there is some controversy on the design, but if they really do help the escalator situation, I couldn't care less what they look like. A simple, utilitarian design would be great.

washingtonpost.com: The article about and artist's rendering of the proposed canopies can be found here.

Richard A. White: Seeking opinions on our canopy design is like seeking opinions on the recent Presidential election. In other words, there is no shortage of ideas, and no two are alike! Seriously, though, our Board has asked us to seek a limited number of alternative designs to the design that was recently proposed. I hope that in the next three to four months, we will be able to complete this task and forward these recommendations to our Board for final approval. Once this approval occurs, we are prepared to move as quickly as possible with installing these canopies over our unprotected escalators. This should greatly enhance the reliability of our escalators, not to mention serving as a benefit to our customers during inclement weather.

washingtonpost.com: Since you were online last, there was quite a controversy caused by a transit police officer's arrest of a 12-year-old girl for eating French fries in a Metro station. (Read the article.) Since that incident, have you reviewed or revised any of your policies?

Richard A. White: Obnviously this situation has generated a lot of interest among readers of the Post and amongst our own customers. Again, public opinion is almost equally divided down the middle in terms of how our Metro Transit Police responded to that particular situation. We have met with various interested parties on this matter, and I believe that early next year we will proceed with a demonstration program utilizing a Youth Court program in the District of Columbia to deal with relatively minor "quality of life" offenses committed by juveniles. This program would allow us to issue the equivalent of a citation, rather than the need to proceed with an arrest as is required by the current D.C. statute. Subject to this demonstration effort, we would be prepared to utilize this arrangement on a permanent basis. Frankly, our Transit Police officers would prefer to have an alternative solution to arrest. I would note that enforcing Metro's 'no eating and drinking' regulations has paid great dividends over the years in terms of system cleanliness and attractiveness. Many other systems around the country which do not vigorously enforce such requirements find their systems deteriorating in terms of cleanliness and desirability. We take great pride in the general cleanliness and safety of our system.

Alexandria, VA: Just wanted to express my gratitude for keeping the trains running later on weekends. Simplifies my social plans.

Richard A. White: You're very welcome. The current status of our late night service is as follows: We now operate our trains until 1 a.m. on a permanent basis on Friday and Saturday nights. We have been running our weekend service until 2 a.m. on a demonstration basis. We will be reporting back to our Board of Directors next Spring on the results of this demonstration. At that time, the Board will decide whether to retain this 2 a.m. service on a permanent basis.

Metro Center: Hi Richard,
When are we going to see renovated or new rail cars with the new color scheme as selected a couple of years ago? I recall it was red/blue instead of orange/yellow.

Richard A. White: The 192 new railcars that we will be receiving shortly will be the first cars with the new color scheme. You should begin to see these new cars beginning in January. These deliveries will span through summer of 2002. We anticipate the award of a contract to rehabilitate more than 360 of our older railcars as early as next week. However, we will not see the first of those newly rehabilitated cars in service until late 2002. Of course, these will also have the new color scheme. Unfortunately it is a very lengthy process to change out our color scheme due to the extraordinary cost and the need to schedule it in conjunction with other major capital projects.

Woodley Park, DC: Hello,
I'd like to submit two suggestions:
(1) are there any plans to connect Farragut North and Farragut West stations with a tunnel allowing transfers? This might be expensive, but would really make the system more usable in that area of midtown and
(2) how about more signs saying "stand right" on escalators in tourist-heavy areas (where they stand on the left and block commuters walking down/up)

Richard A. White: The idea of a connection between our Farragut North and Farragut West Metro stations has been discussed for a long time. Actually, this project is included in our Service Expansion Plan. Unfortunately, no funds have been identified for this project at this time, and it has not reached the top of the list for the District's priorities because of many other pressing needs. We are currently evaluating the idea of signage with respect to traffic flow on our escalators; we need to make sure that the right messages are conveyed, particularly with respect to the safe use of the escalators. Although we don't encourage walking on the escalators for safety reasons, many of our customers do it anyway. I agree with you that we need to somehow convey the message that "standees" should stay to the right and "walkers" to the left while using our escalators. But we must convey those messages with safety remaining as our #1 priority.

Arlington: Are there any plans to put a canopy over the rest of the platform at the National Airport station? One end of the platform is covered which is nice, but the other end is uncovered which means in bad weather one must schlep through the rain/snow/ whatever to get to the escalators at that end of the platform. It is not always convenient to exit at the covered end depending on which airline you're using.

Richard A. White: Yes, there are already plans in the works to cover the remaining area of the platform at our National Airport station with an extended canopy. This project is being funded by the Airports Authority, and the agreement to proceed with this improvement should occur in the near future. Obviously, it will take some time to actually procure and construct this improvement, but we will move as quickly as we possibly can.

Washington DC: Why is there an initial charge for the SmarTrip cards? Many of my co-workers want to get one but feel they shouldn't have to pay $5 for the card so they continue to use the paper ones. Thanks Paul Giuliano

Richard A. White: The reason why we charge $5 for the SmarTrip card is to reinforce the notion with our customers that these cards have a value, in addition to the dollar value that is loaded onto the card. In other areas around the world, where the card was distributed for free, the experience has been that the cards have been scarfed up as novelty items, or simply tossed away when the dollar value reached zero. We want to make sure that our customers understand the need to take care of these cards, and importantly, to re-register a new card if their old one is lost, so that we can make sure that our customer does not lose any fare value that he/she had previously loaded onto the card. Therefore, we decided to split the cost of the card with our customer, in the hope that the above-stated objectives are attained. We feel the dollars saved and the additional convenience more than make up for the one-time $5 cost. For example, there is a 10% discount for all value above $20 that is loaded onto the card, up to a maximum value of $180, meaning that our customers could save as much as $18 for that kind of transaction. And keep in mind, our SmarTrip cards make great stocking stuffers.

Vienna, VA: Are you aware of the problems at the Dunn Loring Metro parking facility? There is an extreme lack of parking available. Whereas a metro rider could arrive at Dunn Loring at 8:30 and receive a spot six months ago, they now must jockey for a spot well before 8am.

Richard A. White: There is no doubt that an adequate supply of parking is one of our top challenges at the moment. At many of our locations, including Dunn Loring, all of our spaces fill up much earlier than they did just several months ago. In fact, a recent Post article by reporter Lyndsey Layton pointed out that the morning commutes on both transit and the road system are getting earlier and earlier. There are a number of new garages that are either in construction or in the planning stages, including at our Vienna station which will open up 1,600 additional spaces next month. Plans are advancing for new and expanded facilities at the following locations: Franconia-Springfield, West Falls Church, Shady Grove, Grosvenor, College Park, and New Carrollton. It is my hope that we can find a way to expand parking at other facilities, as well. This "problem" is a sure sign of the success of our rail system, but one that requires attention and a commitment of funding.

Springfield: just wanted to say thank you for the $20 (and a bus transfer) weekly passes sold at the Springfield metro. combined with my agency's subsidy, my commute is practically free!

Richard A. White: You're very welcome. Our Metrochek transit benefit program has been wildly successful. It has proven to be a great inducement for people to use our services. The current tax law allows an employer to provide up to $65 per month in tax-free or pre-tax benefits. Effective in January 2002, this amount increases to $100 per month. An Executive Order signed earlier this year by President Clinton mandated that all Federal government agencies provide this benefit to their Washington-based employees, which we believe will attract thousands of new Metrorail and Metrobus customers. This incentive helps to level the playing field between the perceived costs of transit usage versus the perceived costs of using one's automobile. It really works, and thanks for being one of our loyal customers!

washingtonpost.com: Lyndsey Layton's article, "On Metro, Morning Rush is Dawning Earlier," can be found here.

WDC: Mr. White,

I am a loyal rider of Metro. However, there are two issues that have been bothering me lately. First of all, isn't there something we can do about the temperatures in the stations and trains? For all the years I've been riding Metro, it has seemed to me that the temperatures have always been excessively high during the winter. Please keep in mind that we're all wearing coats, hats and scarves -- we shouldn't have to strip down and fan ourselves to stay comfortable!

Second of all, I'm a big fan of the new electronic signs in the stations. However, I think they were much more useful when they first were activated. I recognize the value of being able to put safety and promotional messages up there, but the primary reason I look to the signs is to find out when the next train is coming, and what color it will be. I have noticed lately that, instead of flashing notices at certain intervals, it seems that approaching train information is provided only when the train is one minute away. More frequent updates would be appreciated -- that way I know how much longer I need to fan myself!

Richard A. White: Interestingly, we often get comments from our passengers that our trains are either too hot or too cold in the winter months. We attempt to maintain a standard air temperature inside our trains, but it is not always possible to regulate the temperatures perfectly on all cars of all trains. If you find a car uncomfortable for whatever reason, we encourage you to call our Customer Assistance office at 202-637-1328, or e-mail us at csvc@wmata.com, and provide us with the rail car number (located at either end on the doors that connect the railcars). As for our new station signs, now that we have most of these signs up and running, our next step will be to fine tune the messages on the signs, including more frequent display of 'train arrival' information. We want them to be as functional and useful as possible for our customers. Thanks for your input on this, and keep an eye out for improvements in the very near future.

washingtonpost.com: Thanks for joining us today. Looking ahead to the New Year, will Metro have special hours for New Year's Eve?

Richard A. White: Yes, thanks for asking. Although New Year's Eve is on a Sunday this year, we are staying open until 2 a.m. to make sure that everyone has a way to get home at the end of the evening! Thank you for giving me the opportunity to chat with you again today. On behalf of all Metro employees, let me wish everyone a safe, joyous holiday season and a happy, prosperous New Year. We'll be back again in 2001!

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