Q & A With Richard A. White
General Manager, Metro
Tuesday, March 27, 2001
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.
Metro turns 25 this week, and the system's progress and problems were detailed in a two-part series, "Coming to a Curve" on Sunday and "Design May Hurt Growth" on Monday. For more on Metro's 25th anniversary, including video interviews and historic photos, visit the Metrorail Special Report.
The transcript follows.
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Thanks for joining us today, Richard White. In the last 25 years, Metro has become a vital part of this region's commuting habits. So, a two-part question to start us off: What is the single greatest accomplishment of the system to date, and what is its biggest challenge ahead?
Richard A. White: The biggest single accomplishment to date has been the completion of the longest and largest public works construction program in the history of this country. We achieved that milestone when we opened our Green Line extension to Branch Avenue in January, thus completing the original 103-mile Metrorail system. This has been a 31-year construction effort at a cost of $9.4 billion (which would cost $22 billion if we were to build our same system today!)The single biggest challenge is to ensure that this system remains "in a state of good repair," and with sufficient additional capacity to meet future customer expectations. This will require at least $12.3 billion in funding over the next 25 years. So we have our work cut out for us.
Buried at the bottom of Monday's Post article on the future overcrowding problems on the Metro rail system was a quick mention of the proposed (planned?) Purple Line. Wouldn't this "Metro Beltway" (if, hopefully, Wilson Bridge planners see the light and design it into the construction) greatly alleviate the load on the "spokes" system we currently have? It seems like it should be more than an afterthought in long-range planning.
What can an average Metro rider like me who thinks the Purple Line is an excellent idea do to help ensure that it comes about?
Richard A. White: The notion of a circumferential rail connection along the Maryland Beltway is under active consideration at this very moment in time, and is by no means viewed as an afterthought by the region's transportation planners. Four separate alignments are under study by the Maryland Department of Transportation, and they hope to narrow these options down to a single preferred one perhaps as early as the end of this year. In addition, the construction of the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge is being done in a way to not preclude a future Metrorail extension on the bridge. As we look ahead to the next 25 years, we believe an outer circle connection the current "spikes" of the Metrorail lines is inevitable and will both reduce traffic congestion on the Beltway as well as help to reduce crowding in our core rail stations.
When will we see the new Metro cars and return to the full 8 car lines?
Richard A. White: Our new railcars are in the final stages of acceptance testing and we remain hopeful that the first of these cars will be ready for service soon. The schedule for delivery is to receive the first 80 cars by this summer, and the full delivery of all 192 cars by next summer. As to eight-car trains, this issue is actively under study now, however it is likely that we will need to make considerable capital investments in our infrastructure to support the operation of eight car trains. We expect to have this analysis completed and a detailed plan prepared on this issue by this fall. Our immediate priority upon receipt of the 192 railcars is to create more six-car trains in our system where there are now four-car trains, thereby increasing capacity and reducing crowded conditions that we experience, especially at peak periods.
Tenleytown to Metro Center:
Any chance of Metro building a pedestrian tunnel (like in New York City) connecting Farragut North and Farragut West to ease congestion at Metro Center? Thank you for your response.
Richard A. White: The idea of connecting the two Farragut stations with an underground passageway has been around for a long, long time. Initially, it was scuttled by the National Park Service because of negative construction impacts. With improvements in construction tunneling methods, it is much more feasible to do it today. However, it would be costly, and this project has not risen to the top of the list of transportation priorities in the District of Columbia. But it is included amongst the District's "wish list" of transportation investments.
I am submitting a question early. I have enjoyed seeing old photos on The Post's Web site showing Metro construction.
Has a book been published about it? If so, what's the title and name of the author, please. Many thanks.
The gallery, Mud, Sweat and Tears: 25 Years of Metrorail shows photos from Metro's construction and is narrated by washingtonpost.com Executive Editor Douglas Feaver. (Flash 4 required to see and hear the gallery.)
Richard A. White: Great question and thanks for asking. We are proud to say that we have published an exciting, historical coffee table book, "Metro At 25," which includes many historical photos and stories from the first two-and-a-half decades of our rail system. It will be available beginning March 30 at a cost of $14.99. You can purchase this great book on-line on our Web site (www.wmata.com) as well as at our Metro Center Sales Office. It will also be available at some local bookstores. It is well worth having!
I've been following Metro's desire to extend Metrorail service to the Tyson's Corner area and beyond. However, I have not read anything about a timeframe. Knowing there are tremendous hurdles to overcome, is there any estimate on when Metro "hopes" to either break ground on that development effort, or when they "hope" to have it completed?
Thanks for your time.
Richard A. White: The project involving an extension of the Metrorail system in northern Virginia to Tyson's Corner, Dulles Airport, and Loudoun County is alive and well. We are now in the environmental and preliminary engineering phase of the project, and we are on-schedule to complete this by next Spring. Metro is working on this project as a part of a team including the Commonwealth of Virginia, Fairfax and Loudoun counties, and the airports authority, as well as many other interested groups. Subject to future funding availability (which will be a major challenge), the first phase of this project, namely a bus rapid transit connection along the corridor, could be ready to start by the end of 2003. The rail segment to Tyson's could be ready to start in late 2006, with the remaining rail connection through Dulles Airport to Loudoun County by 2010. This is admittedly an ambitious schedule and entirely dependent on appropriate governmental approvals and a truckload (or railcar) full of cash.
Silver Spring, MD:
When I hear that Metro faces a big funding shortfall in the next few years, I wonder what's the wisdom in building expansions -- past Addison Road, out to Dulles, New York Avenue Station. Couldn't you help solve Metro's funding problems in you canceled those projects and spent the money on more immediate needs?
Richard A. White: It is not feasible to cancel major expansion projects that are now underway in order to meet our other funding requirements, because the funding sources for these expansion projects that you mention come from discretionary federal and state sources and are not fungible for other purposes. We are working as hard as we can to convince our federal, state, and local funding partners that we have other critical funding needs that must be addressed in the near future. But in this case, the "trading deadline" concluded the day these projects were approved.
I know this falls into the realm of a piddly question, but is there anyway you can spell out to riders just what constitutes handicapped for the priority seating. I am seven months pregnant, uncomfortable, and unable to stand for long periods of time. I was told recently by an able bodied (male) rider in a priority seat that if I wasn't old or walking with a cane, he wasn't giving up the seat. I think this policy needs to be spelled out the ridership and it needs to include the words "pregnant women."
Richard A. White: Unfortunately, the definition for handicapped persons that is established by the federal government does not include pregnancy. However, as a matter of courtesy, it is incumbent on the good sense of our customers to yield their seat to those with the greatest need, obviously including pregnant women. I wish that we lived in a perfect world, but unfortunately we don't. I will use this space to appeal to all of our customers to be courteous and offer their seat to those who need it most. On a side note, best of luck with your delivery in two months!
Was surprised to see the extent to which design flaws may hamper Metrorail's ability to handle the passenger load of the future. Why is this? Did the original designers favor aesthetics over function? Or has the system's popularity exceeded their expectations?
Richard A. White: All of the individuals involved in planning for our Metrorail system beginning back in the 1950's did an outstanding job. However, we need to understand that we did not build new subway systems in our country for almost 50 years between the 1920's and 1970's. The first generation of "new" subways began with the Bay Area Rapid Transit system in 1972 and with Metro following in 1976. We all learned a number of things along the way, including the need to have more operational flexibility and a greater number of track miles to serve future growth. What we are now experiencing at Metro is the price of success. We are currently engaged in a process of identifying necessary capacity enhancements for our existing Metrorail system to serve the next generation of our customers. I am confident that we will find the regional support necessary to make our outstanding Metrorail system even better for our future customers. As to aesthetics, the mandate actually established in writing by then-President Lyndon Johnson was to study subway systems around the world and that our Metro system "should be designed so as to set an example for the nation and to take its place among the most attractive in the world." By all accounts, we feel we have done both!
Why not have some Green line trains during rush hour run between Branch Ave to Mt. Vernon Square, to help ease overcrowding on the new part of the Green Line?
Richard A. White: All options to help relieve Green Line overcrowding have been under evaluation, including the suggestion you offered. We believe at this time that the best approach will be to allocate an appropriate number of our new 192 railcars to the Green Line. As you may know, we have added 16 cars to the line since opening day on January 13, increasing the number of cars from 68 to 84 and creating eight six-car trains in addition to nine four-car trains. With the allocation of new railcars expected soon, we will reducing the number of four-car trains and further increasing the number of six-car trains, thereby providing more seats and capacity on the line and reducing that rush hour congestion.
What ever happened to the planned Potomac Yard station that was to be built on the existing blue/yellow line?
Richard A. White: At one time, there was a commitment by the developer of the Potomac Yards land holding to build a new Metrorail station in conjunction with their proposed development concept. However, in the end, the level of density that was approved for the development was considerably less than what was proposed by the developer. This made it economically infeasible for the developer to pay for the cost of the station. There still is a great desire to build a station there, but like everything else, it comes down to dollars.
What can be done to better inform the tourist element of the norms and culture of the Metro, namely, not boarding trains before people disboard, and walking on the left side of the escalator? Starting with the Cherry Blossoms and continuing through summer they are particularly disruptive to our daily commutes, often unwittingly so.
Richard A. White: We have recognized the need to encourage tourists and other occasional users of the system to plan their trips when we are not at the height of our rush hour service, when the system is already carrying very large numbers of customers. Recently we began distributing brochures throughout our system and at locations serving tourists (such as hotels, convention sites, etc.) that provides useful information and tips on how and when to best use our services. Also, our one-day pass cannot be used before 9:30 a.m. on weekdays, after the morning rush hour, as an incentive to tourists to ride Metro during "off peak" periods. We are also planning to put a lot of the same information that is contained in our brochures on our Internet Web site, so those who are "logging on" for information will get the same useful and helpful tips.
Logan Circle, DC:
Please, please, please...
Update the schedules posted (or not
posted) at Metrobus stops. It is SOOO
frustrating to wait (and wait) for a bus,
only to learn that it did not arrive because
the schedule was out of date.
Also, when will SmarTrip fareboxes
appear on Metrobuses?
Richard A. White: We are nearing completion of a D.C. government funded effort to install bus stop information cases at every bus stop in the District, including those near Logan Circle! This project includes over 3,000 bus stops in DC. We have recently added more staffing to clean and update bus stop information display cases in Maryland and Virginia, as well. We recently awarded a contract, in conjunction with the Maryland Mass Transit Administration, to install new fareboxes on our bus system that will accept our SmarTrip card as well as cash. These installations are expected to occur on Metrobuses by the end of calendar year 2002.
Dear Mr. White:
First of all, I am a big fan of Metro and am proud to have the best subway system in the country located right in the D.C. area.
I would like some clarification on Metro's zero tolerance policy on food and drink on the subway. Is it true that because of the controversy caused by the arrest of the high school student who was handcuffed Metro has now relaxed the zero tolerance standards. If so, I am curious why Metro chose this approach rather than just change the procedures of arrest. There had already been, I think, a notable increase in people ignoring the food/drink rules on Metro -- won't an enforcement downgrade to issuing warnings make the violation rate even worse?
Richard A. White: No, we have not relaxed our zero tolerance for eating and drinking on our system, despite some recent newspaper headlines that would seem to indicate otherwise. In fact, we recently strengthened our enforcement program by approving a new policy that will allow our transit police officers to issue written warnings to adults observed eating and drinking on our buses and railcars and in our stations. We have already issued 33 such citations since February 1st. We have also recently instituted a new policy for juvenile offenders which includes a parental and school notification mechanism, and this new approach seems to be working well. We believe very strongly in the zero tolerance concept because we feel it has contributed greatly to the reputation our system enjoys today as the cleanest and safest in the nation.
I read in your bio that you have experience in both the San Francisco and New Jersey transit systems. You must have years and years worth of experience dealing with every kind of government or special interest group. However, I was wondering whether or not the DC metro systems represents a unique or difficult challenge that you never faced before. By that I mean, you have to deal with the Maryland, DC, Virginia, and Federal governments as well as hundreds of local governments.
Richard A. White: Thanks for the opportunity to provide a perspective on the unique nature of public service in the greater Washington, D.C. area. As your question states, I have worked at the federal level of government for six years, with a statewide public transportation agency in New Jersey for 10 years, and for the regional rail operation in the San Francisco- Oakland Bay area for five years. Although I thought this track record prepared me for the job here at Metro, I have come to find out that the public sector environment here is more complex than any other that I have worked in, or that I'm aware of. In this region, we have the pressure points coming from two states, the District of Columbia, several counties and cities, two if not three branches of the federal government, and another 4.2 million residents of the metropolitan area who have enormously high expectations of their regional bus and rail system. It is certainly an enormously challenging environment to work in, but a very stimulating and satisfying one, as well. We have the opportunity, unlike other transit systems around the country, to influence the opinions of elected officials at the federal level as to the benefits of investments in transit systems. Plus, we also have the opportunity to carry thousands of customers to Presidential inaugurations Cherry Blossom festivals, July 4th fireworks, and all of the other major events that take place in the Nation's Capital. I love it here, but I get a lot less sleep than I used to and have far less hair than I would like to admit!
I am a fan of using Metro and wanted to know, is there any way to find out the crime rate regarding Metrorail and buses? Do you publish any kind of annual safety report, and if so, is it available to the public?
Richard A. White: We are proud of the low crime rate on the Metro system, and it remains among the safest transit systems in the entire world. We track our crime statistics in accordance with the FBI's uniform system and we report them on a monthly basis to the Operations/Safety Committee of our Board of Directors. I believe that a review of these statistics will consistently show that we are safer than the surrounding neighborhoods and communities that we serve, based on these uniform crime reporting statistics. Be safe and take Metro. Thanks again for the opportunity to answer your questions in this forum. Remember, we will celebrate the 25th anniversary of our Metrorail system this Thursday. I will be out in several stations along the Red Line that morning, and I hope to see some of you there!
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