How long the honeymoon will last for Metro’s new boss is anybody’s guess.
As of noon Thursday, shortly after the transit agency’s governing board voted to hire Paul J. Wiedefeld as general manager, no one had yet created the Twitter handle @firepauljwiedefeld. But it could be just a matter of time, given the vociferous criticism regularly heaped on the Washington area’s failure-plagued subway system, especially in recent months.
Wiedefeld, 60, who grew up in a working-class Baltimore household, sharing a bedroom with his three older brothers, said, “Believe me, I have very thick skin.” And chances are, he’ll need it, as he tries to assuage the frustration of tens of thousands of delay-weary commuters and mollify a host of elected officials and federal overseers, including the region’s congressional delegation.
Reforming Metro and restoring public confidence in the country’s second-busiest subway won’t be easy. And it comes at a price: With his $397,500 annual salary, Wiedefeld might be the highest-paid mass-transit official in the United States. He is certainly near the top of the list.
“Any time you take on one of these jobs, there are those moments” of trepidation about the challenges, said Wiedefeld, a former top Maryland transit and airport executive and Metro’s 15th general manager since 1967. In an interview this week, as he awaited Thursday’s board vote, he said: “I’m used to dealing with all kinds of different perspectives. . . . I cannot wake up every day and be worried about that.”
He said: “I can be worried about the performance of the system. I will be. I’m going to wake up every morning thinking about the safety of the system, and I’m going to go to bed every night thinking about the safety of the system.”
In communicating with subway riders, Wiedefeld vowed not to “pull the wool over their eyes” by promising quick improvements that he can’t deliver.
“I’ve got to get in there and figure out what we can do to get things to the quality that we all expect and deserve,” he said. “But we also have to be realistic about what we’ve got” in terms of resources. “I’ve got to articulate that and get people to understand. . . . It doesn’t mean they’re going to agree with it. It doesn’t mean they’re going to be happy. But I need to be as transparent as possible with this stuff. And that goes a long way.”
His salary, part of a four-year contract, is $31,500 more than Richard Sarles was paid before he retired as Metro general manager in January. The contract also allows for 20 percent annual performance bonuses at the board’s discretion.
Wiedefeld, a former head of the Maryland Transit Administration, began looking for a new job a few months ago after Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R), who took office this year, fired him as chief executive of Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport.
“The governor and I, we have a good relationship,” Wiedefeld said. “There’s no issue there. It’s a new governor. He wants his own team. It’s totally understandable.”
At Metro, Wiedefeld will be among the highest-paid public officials in the Washington region, with a salary comparable to that of Jack Potter, president of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, who makes $406,000 a year. “We have very similar jobs,” Wiedefeld said.
“To be frank, I think this one is a bit tougher.”
The top transit officials in New York, Boston, San Francisco, Chicago, Philadelphia and Atlanta all make less than Wiedefeld’s new salary.
Metro board members, representing the District, Maryland, Virginia and federal governments, struggled for months to reach a consensus on what type of general manager the beleaguered agency most needed, a debate that reflected the differing views of top political leaders in the region.
Because of Metro’s infrastructure woes and chronic, occasionally calamitous breakdowns, some members wanted a traditional transit administrator experienced in fostering a strong safety culture. Others pushed for a financial specialist — even one with no transit background — who could guide the cash-strapped agency back to fiscal health.
They wound up hiring their second choice. After the top candidate, Neal S. Cohen, a corporate finance expert, mainly in the airline and aerospace industries, changed his mind about the Metro job, the board turned to Wiedefeld, a career transportation planner and manager with an extensive public-sector résumé. He also worked on transportation-related projects for the giant construction-consulting firm Parsons Brinckerhoff.
A firefighter’s son and the first in his family to graduate from college, Wiedefeld has an affable, low-key demeanor and deep Maryland roots, with a Balmer accent to prove it.
Sitting in a cafeteria at the National Academy of Sciences building near Metro headquarters, where he had been working in a borrowed conference room in the days leading up to Thursday’s vote, Wiedefeld said he wasn’t ready to offer specifics about his plans for the agency. “I think it’s going to be a blast,” he said of the job. “I have to do a lot of homework to catch up. So I’ve been getting briefing papers and things like that.”
Not that he isn’t familiar with Metrorail’s shortcomings. After the executive search firm hired by Metro contacted him about the general manager position late in the summer, Wiedefeld said, he began studying the transit system.
“I know other people in the industry I could talk to confidentially about it, people up and down the East Coast who have dealt with” the agency, he said. “And probably for the last two weeks-plus, it’s been 100 percent of my time, dealing with everyone I can find, to learn about their perspective. And also just reading up on some of the issues.”
Addressing board members after they voted unanimously to hire him Thursday, Wiedefeld said,“In talking to a number of people around the region, the unfortunate fact is, we’ve lost our credibility, as an agency and, frankly, as a board.” Later, asked by reporters whether he planned to fire any senior Metro managers, Wiedefeld was noncommittal.
“I know . . . how I’m going to run the organization,” he said. “People will understand that. And either they can perform to that level or they can’t. And we’ll adjust as we go along.”
In the interview, he said Metro’s most pressing issues fall in three broad categories: safety problems, unreliable service and financial troubles.
The safety deficiencies, related to the need for costly infrastructure upgrades, were underscored by a Jan. 12 incident in a Yellow Line tunnel. That afternoon, smoke from an electrical malfunction on the tracks enveloped a stalled train, sickening scores of passengers, one of whom died of respiratory failure.
“What I’m going to focus on, initially, obviously, is safety,” Wiedefeld said. “My thinking is, we should get to a point that it is not an issue. It’s like, you’re in an elevator, you never think about the elevator having safety issues. It’s an elevator! And that’s the way we should be dealing with transit. . . . We have to get it to where that’s how it operates; it’s not on people’s minds. Clearly we have a lot of work to do to get to that point.”
As for undependable service, he said: “I’ve got to get down to the root causes and see what we can do to start to change some of that, across the board. I’m going to hold weekly meetings across the entire operation, where I want to know what’s not performing to the level it should be, why not, and what we are doing about it.” He described the planned sessions as “weekly come-to-Jesus-type meetings.”
When he officially starts work, the week after Thanksgiving, Wiedefeld will be immediately confronted by Metro’s severe cash-flow squeeze, as his staff finishes the difficult process of drafting a new budget, due to be made public by early December.
Subway ridership is declining, crimping Metro’s biggest in-house revenue stream. Washington area jurisdictions are reluctant to increase their financial subsidies to the agency, given its problems. Operating costs are rising steadily. And board members from the District have promised to veto any proposed fare increases.
Meanwhile, the Federal Transit Administration is continuing to restrict Metro’s access to federal funds, after a 2014 audit found that the agency had been mismanaging grant money for years. Until the FTA is convinced that the problems have been rectified, which could take several more months, the restrictions will stay in effect, forcing Metro to rely heavily on expensive, short-term borrowing to help pay its bills.
The agency’s approximately $3 billion budget for the current fiscal year includes about $1.8 billion for day-to-day operations and about $1.2 billion for long-term capital projects. Asked how he intends to balance the soon-to-be-unveiled budget, for the fiscal year that begins July 1, Wiedefeld shook his head.
“I’m not there yet,” he said. “I don’t have enough [information] to comment on what I’m going to do. But clearly that’s an issue.”
Metro blames the 5 percent drop in rail ridership since 2010 on federal job cuts; the growing popularity of biking, car-sharing and telecommuting; the reduced tax benefit for using mass transit; and public frustration over poor service.
“There are a lot of dynamics,” Wiedefeld said, some of them beyond the agency’s control. But Metro could fix one aspect of the ridership problem — public dissatisfaction — by improving safety and reliability, he said. And that also could make local jurisdictions more amendable to increasing their financial contributions. The road to fiscal recovery for Metro, Wiedefeld said, begins with providing “a good product.”
For the next month, he said, “I’m not going to be held captive in headquarters. I really just want to get out and meet all the stakeholders,” from the halls of Congress to the crowded aisles of rush-hour trains. “And I’ve already started doing that on my own. I think it’s important for me to just get out and hear what people have to say.”
Wiedefeld’s introduction to public transit was the cross-town No. 8 bus that carried him each weekday from his boyhood home in North Baltimore to Mount Saint Joseph High School, eight miles away. He is one of six siblings. Their late father was a Baltimore firefighter and their mother, now 88, was a secretary.
After receiving a bachelor’s degree in political science in 1979 from what is now Towson University, he worked as a carpenter for a year, installing kitchen cabinets, then got a master’s degree from Rutgers University in city and regional planning, with a focus on transportation.
Starting in 1983, he worked in Maryland’s transportation bureaucracy for a decade, before joining Parsons Brinckerhoff. “I’ve done consulting work, which is all fine and good, but that’s not what drives me,” Wiedefeld said. He said he would rather do things himself than give advice. In 2002, he became BWI’s chief executive.
He was widely credited with successfully overseeing a $1.8 billion expansion at the airport that included construction of a 26-gate Southwest Airlines terminal, new parking garages and an off-site rental car facility. In 2005, he returned to Parsons Brinckerhoff to lead the company’s aviation consulting practice.
In 2007, then-Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) chose Wiedefeld to head the Maryland Transit Administration. The MTA manages MARC commuter trains as well as light rail and other transit systems, including Baltimore’s subway, which is far smaller than Metro. Two years later, Wiedefeld began his second stint as BWI’s chief executive, holding the job until Hogan sent him packing in July.
Now he is looking for a place to live near Metro’s Red Line — and not because he wants to experience the service on the system’s oldest, balkiest route. The Red Line would give him a one-seat ride to Metro headquarters and also to Union Station, where he can catch a MARC train to the Baltimore area on weekends. His wife plans to stay in their home, just north of the city, until their teenage daughter finishes high school.
Although Wiedefeld isn’t fully up to speed on Metro’s big issues, he has mastered some of the finer points. On Tuesday, for example, while he was having his picture taken at the Judiciary Square station, he found himself standing (at the photographer’s direction) on the left side of an escalator — a tourist-like breach of subway etiquette that annoys everyday commuters. The rule: walk left, stand right.
“I had to correct her,” Wiedefeld said of the photographer. “A picture like that, I told her, ‘Do you know how many tweets would come out?’ It would be everywhere.”