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Q&A With Richard White

Tuesday, October 19, 1999

"Levey Live" appears each Tuesday from noon to 1 p.m. Eastern time. It's your chance to talk directly to to key Washington Post reporters and editors, local officials and people in the news.

Bob Levey
Bob Levey
Craig Cola/washingtonpost.com
Bob's guest today is Richard White, General Manager and Chief Executive Officer of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. White is responsible for the operation of the region's Metrorail, Metrobus and Metro Access systems.

Richard White
Richard White

Before taking his current position, White served as General Manager of the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BART) and was a program analyst with the U.S. Department of Transportation's Urban Mass Transportation Administration. He attended Syracuse University and the University of Massachusetts.

Chantilly VA: How is the temperature for subways determined? Is there a constant tempcheck going on to determine heat vs. air, level, etc.? I've found that with the fall weather starting, Metro seems to OVERcompensate for chilly mornings, forgetting that with lots of bodies in the train it gets warm on its own. How, and how OFTEN, is the temperature decided-fixed?

PS -- Noticed you're an SU grad ... how bout them Hokies? ;--

Richard White: I don't have a detailed answer on the temperature but I have more than enough recent knowledged about the Hokies. I'm not routing for you guys.

Bob Levey: As you know, I'm a huge fan of Metrobuses. Is ridership still growing? Will it continue to grow?

Richard White: Ridership on bus is booming. We're up 13% in the last 3 months primarliy because of our fare simplication program that we introduced in June of this year. We're making a singifacnt investment in buying new buses to upgrade our fleet.

Bob Levey: About those new buses that serve the less-travelled routes: they have to be the weirdest looking vehicles in the history of the planet. My son says they remind him of "overgrown spiders." Have you had complaints about these buses? They are a lot smaller than their predecessors, after all.

Richard White: These weird looking buses are much smaller and weigh considerably less than our fullsized vehicles. Many people in the community have complained about noise and vibration from the big buses.

DC: What are your views on the idea of a Purple Line in Maryland?

Richard White: This is now being studied by MDOT as a part of their beltway expansion study. There is an option on the table to connect New Carrollton to Grosvener via the Beltway. More to follow later this fall.

DC: how come there aren't PROMPT announcements about delays? how come i always realize there's a delay LONG before metro announces it? and sometimes there isn't even an announcement! we passengers would feel a lot better if you told us about a delay IMMEDIATELY.

Richard White: We agree tha we can do a better job in this area. We have had significant retraining for our train operators and I think we have made some improvements recently. By the end of this year, we expect to have new signs in our train stations that will give you train arrival information on a real time basis. Hopefully, this will help.

Springfield, VA: The metro does not allow bikes on the train during commuting hours. I sometimes ride the metro very early in the morning. There are not many riders from about 5:30 AM to 6:00 AM. If metro would allow bikes during that short time period it would be very helpful for bike commuters and shouldn't interfere with the more crowded commute time. Is this possible? I have also heard that liability is an issue with bikes on the metro during rush hour. Is this true?

Richard White: We attempt to allow bikes on trains when they do not significantly interfere with our other customers. We are still entertaining the possibility of expanding bicycle access for metrorail. We'll take your comment under advisement.

Arlington, Va.: What's the deal with those electonic signs that have been installed in all the stations over this summer? Are y'all going to broadcast the Redsksins score on them? Current delays on I-66?

Richard White: We're giong to start first with the MetroRail score. We've experienced some delays in activating the signs. But we believe that they will be in service by the December. Hopefully, they'll be worth the wait.

Silver Spring MD : 1. Why do you charge $5 for the rapid fare pass card? Don't you want to encourage its use? It cuts costs for Metro, as far as I can see. [edited for space]

Richard White: The card itself costs us approximately $10. We split the cost with you to encourage you to hang on to the card. In addition, we are able to deactivate your card should you lose it. Sorry, but that will cost you another $5.

Bob Levey: I know you have many priorities for Metrorail over the next 25 years, but if you could have just one, would it be expansion to Dulles? Or is maintenance the more pressing need?

Richard White: Adequately maintaining and recapitalizing our MetroRail and MetroBus system does take prioirty over expansion of the system. However, rail service in the Dulles coordior is clearly needed and we hope that that project is able to move forward in the very near future.

Bob Levey: You and I have debated this many times, but let me raise it again: The mind of the suburban commuter. How much pain will it take (and wasted gas, and wasted time) for that car-head to realize that public transportation is worth a shot? We just can't keep building more roads forever and ever, amen--can we?

Richard White: Suburban spawl clearly makes it more difficult for mass transit to serve many of our suburban communities. At the present, Metro removes 260,000 cars from the road on a daily basis. Hopefully, we can play an even bigger role in the future.

Washington DC: Howdy. One thing about the Metro drives me NUTS! That is folks who will not stand to the right on the escalators to let those "always in a rush" persons like myself pass t by.her
How about posting signs ON the escalators suggesting they do just that. Other than that, you've got a great system -although i wish the trains would run rush hour schedules on weekends..-

Richard White: We encourage people not to walk on escolatrs. However, it is not prohibited. That is why we ask that people stand on the right to allow others to walk on the left if they feel it to be necessary.

Rosslyn, VA: Good Afternoon-

Mr. White - I just want to say THANK YOU to you and everyone else who is working to extend Metro's weekend hours until 1 a.m. -and, I'm keeping my fingers crossed, ultimately until 2 a.m.-. I cannot tell you how many times my friends and I have had to choose between using Metro and cutting the night short or driving-cabbing and enjoying a leisurely night on the town - guess which one wins out now? The later hours will make it much easier for us to go out without worring about parking, deciding on designated drivers, or running to the metro station at a full sprint trying to catch the last train at 11:45. Please let me know if there is anything we can to do ensure that the later hours become permanent. Thanks again.

Richard White: Starting Friday, Nov.5, we will be extending MetroRail service until 1am on an experimental basis. We will evaluate usage and closely examine wether the later hours present any unanticipated system maintainence problems for us. By June of next year, I anticipate that the Board of Directors will make a final decision on this including the possibility of running until 2am.

Bob Levey: Here we go into that eight-year-long Hell on Earth--the reconstruction of the Springfield Mixing Bowl in Northern Virginia. What are your plans to increase Metro service in that neck of the woods during reconstruction? Or will you wait to see if there's sufficient demand?

Richard White: We're beginning by providing more parking capacity at the Springfield station and also by providing pricing discounts for people who arrive by bus. If the demand so warrants, we would increase rail service accordingly.

Washington, D.C.: Mr. White -
I am a regular Metro user and I think you've got a LONG way to go on communicating with your customers. A couple of examples: why doesn't your website have up-to-the-minute information on delays? The Washington Post site does. Those of us who have a choice of when to leave the office could check the site before leaving to see if our train is delayed, just like we all check the traffic before getting into a car. Second, you can't hear a word and you're on the platform when delays are actually announced. Why not put up a message board where we can read about what's going on? I love Metro but please -!- let us know what's going on!

Richard White: We're putting a high priority on improving communications for our customers. First, the new train arrival signs will be in service in the next 2 to 3 months. Second, we are testing out a new PA system for our stations to improve clarity of our voice announcements. Third, we have a new on-line ride guide service that gives you information on our schedules and various services. I would like to introduce real time information in as many different ways as possible. In short, we hear you and are trying to make improvements in this area.

NW DC: Was in New York for a trip last week and got to take the 7 train a couple of times, which has to be the oldest, slowest, creakiest subway I've ever been on -well, except for maybe the Green Line of the T-.

The experience made me appreciate the current Metro equipment, but also wonder what the service life is on the current set of cars. How many miles are they good for?

Richard White: Our rail cars are designed to last approximately 35 years if rehabilitated during their midlife. I can give you the years but not the miles. Suffice it to say, it's alot.

Arlington, VA: I'm with Bob on the fabulousness of the SmarTrip card. It is extremely easy to add money to, get in and out of Metro with, and even allows us to get rid of those low denomination farecards in the drawer. What is the next great technolgical boon Metro has for us?

Richard White: Let's see. We've done SmartCard, credit card, debit card, train arrival signs and on-line ride guide. We're thinking about trying to introduce information in our parking structures that will tell people when teh garages are filled up so you don't have to ride around endlessly looking for a spot. Can't tell you when we'll have this capability but we're studying it closely. Also, we hope that in a few years, you will be able to add value on your SmartTrip card at your home or business PC via cyberbanking.

Bob Levey: Escalators--horrible, horrible, horrible. Any hope that we can enter a Metrorail station and see more of them working than broken?

Richard White: Escalators give me nightmares. On any given day, 90% work but 10% don't. That means about 55 escalators are out of service on any given day. We're not giving up but please be patient.

Bob Levey: Do you plan an additional subway stop at New York and Florida Avenues NE even if no baseball stadium is built near there?

Richard White: The answer is yes. Mayor Williams has indicated his desire to see a new station built on the redline at NY and Florida avenues. It is now a priority of ours and we could see a groundbreaking in the next couple of years.

Wash DC: Mr. White:

Shouldn't there be a discounted fare when the escalators don't work?

Richard White: We'll consider this if you're willing to pay more when they do work. Seriously, we understand that this is a great inconvience and we are rapidly advancing improvements in escalator profromance.

Washington DC: We appreciate your taking questions from us commuters. A minor point perhaps, but can something be done about the annoying recorded voice saying to crowded passengers "Please stand clear of the doors!" Perhaps a different, more pleasant announcement?

Richard White: You may not know, but when I first arrived here more than 3 years ago, people told me that the message was overly harsh. We re-recorded a kinder gentler message. Maybe we need to take another look at it.

DC: Any chance of a metro station opening in Georgetown or Glover Park?

I would love to metro to work rather than drive. Taking the bus doesn't help me avoid traffic, but a metro stop would allow me to use public transportation and avoid traffic!

Richard White: Unfortunately, more than 30 years ago, there was too much community opposition to building metrorail in Georgetown. Today, it is probably too costly to do so. Sorry.

Wash DC: Why not open Metro on the weekends at 5:00 a.m. or earlier than 8:00 a.m. in addition to extending the closing hours?

Richard White: You may not know it, but when everybody sleeps, we do all of our maintainence on the railroad. Opening up earlier on a saturday or a sunday would rob us of necessary maintainence time. Unlike places like NY and Boston, we do not have third tracks like they do. That is how they are able to operate all night service.

Arlington, VA: In a field in the middle of nowhere between National Airport and Braddock Road on the Blue and Yellow lines, there used to be a sign reading "site of future Potomac Yard Metrorail station". It always seemed odd to me, since there was nothing there that wasn't closer to Braddock Road. Then they built Potomac Yard mall and suddenly it all seemed to make a bit more sense. But at nearly the same time, the sign vanished. Will this mythical Metro station ever appear or did you guys finally decide that it was as useless an idea as I had first thought?

Richard White: The original plan was for the land developer to build a metrorail station in Potomac Yards at their expense. Unfortunately, they were unable to receive approvals for high enough density to support the funding of the new station. Therefore, it does not appear at this time that the station will be built unless there is a public source of financing.

Bob Levey: Gov. Gilmore said recently that he will support $2 billion for Northern Virginia public transportation. But a regional panel said that Northern Virginia has $11 billion worth of needs. Where will the additional $9 billion come from?

Richard White: That's for the elected officials to decide and, of course, the voters. I'm just the paid beaurcrat.

Vienna VA: I'll be honest and admit that I do not take Metro downtown during the week and I'll tell you why. I don't live within walking distance to the metro and by the time I get there in the AM, the lot is already full. I know there are these monthly passes you can get for a 'reserved' spot, but from what I've been told, those are all sold out. If you want people to take the metro, you have to make it easier for us to get there and actually use it.

Richard White: You're absolutely right. We do not have enough parking. We are trying to encourage more people to use the buses to get to the trains. However, for you in Vienna, relief is on the way. Next week, we are breaking ground for a 2nd parking garage at Vienna which will bring almost another 2,000 parking spaces. Should be completed by December 2000 or thereabouts.

Burke, VA: When is Metro going to discontinue manual braking? This practice is hard on standees, particularly those of us who cannot reach the overhead bar. Lacking this, how about more training for Metro drivers. Some of them brake and release, brake and release, 6-10 times at each station.

Richard White: Finally, after 7 months, relief is in sight. That's the good news. The bad news is that the relief won't be here until May of next year. Hang on.

Bob Levey: Now that the Green Line is finished and open, is ridership what you projected?

Richard White: We projected 4,000 riders with the opening of our two new green line stations. From day 1, we are carrying approximately double that. This follows the same positive trend that has occured with the opening of both Fraconian-Springfeild and Glenmont stations. Build it and they will come.

Arlington: Arlington seems to have the right idea in concentrating housing and commercial zones near to the metro stations -i.e., the orange line corridor-. Being near metro was a top priority for me when I bought my home. Do you think other jurisdictions can or will adopt similar zoning in order to encourage the use of rail? Seems like all of those people who suffer through the traffic on 66 and the beltway would have it easier if they moved to areas that are walking distance to transit.

Richard White: The issue of transportation and land use planning is becoming a front and center issue for this region. Unfortunately, not everyone has been able to plan as well as Arlington County. It is only when congestion gets at such a high level due to sprawl that people begin to recognize the problem. Hopefully, better planning can help prevent the problem from getting worse.

Seabrook, MD: It would make life much easier if I could use the SmartCard on the bus. Any thoughts on that in the future?

Richard White: We are ready to proceed with a procurement of new fare boxes for our buses. They will be equipped to accept both magnetic cards as well as SmartCards. It will take a couple of years to complete this effort.

Bob Levey: One proposal to deal with the Tyson's Corner transportation question would have companies located there pay an extra tax to build rail. Do you really think these companies would go for that? My nose says otherwise.

Richard White: It is becoming increasingly likely that businesses both in Tysons Corner and in Reston and Heardon would be willing to tax themselves if they were able to be adequately served by a MetroRail extension. If I were betting man, I would place a bet on yes.

Springfield, VA: In Germany, I found many parking decks tell arrivals exactly how many spaces are available on each level by simply counting the number of cars that go in and out - I think doing this would greatly reduce frustration and time spent wandering lots -and airports should do the same!-. And I happen to believe that the "guaranteed" parking is a bad idea - valuable spaces sit empty, putting additional cars on the road.

Richard White: I agree the issue of parking is frustrating. There doesn't seem to be a simple solution. Building new parking garages is extremely expensive but needs to be done in certain locations. More and better bus service to rail stations could also help. Finally, I agree with you that technology solutions could also help. I like your idea and we are currently evaluating that same concept.

Bob Levey: I was vastly amused a few months ago when your board declared the brown and orange interiors of the trains "too 1970s." Hey, I had a good time in the 1970s. I still have my leisure suits to prove it. Seriously, when will we see the new red and blue interiors?

Richard White: You'll see them on our new railcars that are scheduled to arrive by the end of next year. Thereafter, they will be replaced on teh remainder of the rail fleet. Hang on to your 3 button suits for the future.

Arlington: It sounds like there an awful lot of projects that are going to be in place in the next couple of years --- according to your responses to so many of the questions posed here today. What are the chances we'll actually see these things come to fruition? Are you making promises you'll actually be able to keep?

Richard White: Maybe I'm the eternal optimist. I will do everything in my power to try to make these things happen. I love metro and I value your loyalty and advice.

Bob Levey: I was delighted to see not only a Redskin victory at Landover two Sundays ago, but a semi-solution to the transportation/parking mess. But couldn't Metro do more to advertise the fact that it runs shuttle buses between Richard White Stadium (hey, I can hope!) and the Addison Road station?

Richard White: For service to the Redskins, Metro is merely the contract service provider. We do what they ask and pay for us to do. We agree that there could be more marketing. I, for one, would like to see the Redskins provide the bus service free of charge. Hopefully, more improvements will evolve over time. I'm encouraged by the recent changes the Redskins have made to promoting metro services. Also, 4-1 ain't bad. Go Redskins.

Bob Levey: Tourists are our lifeblood, but many of them still don't know about Metrorail, or are too afraid to try it. Have you considered marketing Metro outside of Washington?

Richard White: We do alot of marketing of our services for tourists particularly with chambers of commerce, convention centers and hotels. The best service we have is our on-line ride guide service that allows people from anywhere around the world to get informationon our services via the internet. www.wmata.com.

Bob Levey: Some members of the Metro board have been quoted as saying that Metro faces a situation like New York City in the 1970s if big money isn't spent soon on maintenance. Would you characterize the problem as being that bad? Are we running the risk of trains stalling in tunnels and doors opening when a train is roaring along at 65 miles an hour?

Richard White: If we're not careful, we will run the risk of having a NY City type transit problem. We are just beginning to do things that we should have done 3 to 4 years ago. Hopefully, it's not too late. Again, as the eternal optimist, we'll do our best to maintain the high standards that people have come to expect from us.

Bob Levey: Many thanks to Richard White for an excellent hour. Be sure to join us next Tuesday, Oct. 26, AT A SPECIAL TIME, when our guest will be the governor of Maryland, Parris Glendening. The governor will appear on "Levey Live" from 1:45 to 2:45 p.m. Eastern time. And don't forget our weekly anything-goes version of the show, "Levey Live: Speaking Freely." It appears Fridays from 1 to 2 p.m. Eastern time.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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