Metro’s year-long search for a general manager ended Thursday with the selection of a former top Maryland transportation official whose combination of financial and operational experience in public transit won him unanimous support from the agency’s sometimes-fractious board.
Paul J. Wiedefeld, a former head of the Maryland Transit Administration and Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport, has agreed to become Metro’s top manager and will be officially hired Nov. 19, the transit agency announced.
The choice of Wiedefeld, 60, ends a protracted search that for months was complicated by the struggling agency’s operational and safety problems and its severe money woes.
In seeking a general manager, some board members had argued that Metro should focus on a financial-turnaround expert — even if the person had no transit background — while others wanted to hire a traditional transit executive with experience in day-to-day operations and the ability to instill a strong organizational safety culture.
Board members on both sides of the debate, representing the District, Maryland, Virginia and the federal government, found common ground in Wiedefeld, who was a senior Maryland transportation official for 11 years, mostly under two Democratic governors.
“Paul brings to Metro a depth of transportation knowledge and regional experience, and we are absolutely united in our support for him,” the Metro board chairman, Mortimer L. Downey, said in announcing the decision.
After months of criticizing Metro for the slow progress of the search, officials in the Washington-area jurisdictions served by the transit system, including members of Congress, also said they were pleased.
Former general manager Richard Sarles, who retired in January, was paid $366,000 a year. Downey said that when Wiedefeld’s contract is finalized — before the Nov. 19 vote to hire him — the agreement will give him a higher salary than Sarles had received.
“I don’t think he’ll be the highest-paid public official in the region, but he’ll be awfully close to that,” said Downey, who declined to specify the figure Thursday. “He’s got the biggest public-sector job in the region.”
As difficult as the search process was, much harder work is ahead for the board and its new chief executive.
At Metro, Wiedefeld will quickly face pressure to solve the transit agency’s array of safety-related operational problems and its worsening financial condition. And he will lead the effort to restore public confidence in the subway system, which has been plagued by frequent service slowdowns and occasional calamitous disruptions in recent months.
“This is welcome, long-overdue news since it’s now been 10 months since Metro has gone without strong leadership,” Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) said in a statement praising the board’s pick.
“I am encouraged by Mr. Wiedefeld’s experience in the transit and aviation industries,” Connolly said, “and I hope his familiarity with Metro and the national capital region will allow him to help turn around a Metro system reeling from crisis to crisis.”
Metro is under intense scrutiny from federal safety officials because of dangerous infrastructure and operational problems that have come to light this year, involving subway electrical equipment, ventilation systems, computer software and other technical issues. Federal safety officials also have cited numerous problems with the rail-control center, where trains are monitored in real time.
Many of the shortcomings were exposed after a deadly incident Jan. 12 in a Yellow Line tunnel near the L’Enfant Plaza station. An electrical malfunction on the tracks filled the tunnel with smoke, engulfing a stalled train in noxious fumes and sickening scores of riders. A 61-year-old woman died of respiratory failure.
Since then, Metro has become the first urban subway system in the nation to be placed under direct safety oversight of the Federal Transit Administration.
The National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the smoke calamity, is due to issue its final report early next year. The report is almost certain to contain a host of recommended safety-related infrastructure and operational fixes that will be the new general manager’s responsibility.
“Mr. Wiedefeld’s significant experience in managing safety and operations in the transit industry will surely serve him well as he steps into his role with Metro,” Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) said in a statement. “I am hopeful that this appointment, though overdue, will give [Metro] the stability and expertise it needs to produce meaningful change across the agency.”
In addition to those operational challenges, Wiedefeld will immediately face the difficult process of formulating a budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. The spending plan is due to be unveiled this month.
In Metro’s overall $3 billion budget for the current fiscal year, $1.8 billion is for day-to-day operations. As usual, nearly half that money, $866 million, is coming from the jurisdictions that are served by the transit system.
After chronic disruptions in subway service — some of them temporarily crippling the system — and revelations about infrastructure problems, the jurisdictions have balked at chipping in more money to help Metro pay its mounting bills, at least until the agency improves rail safety and reliability.
Meanwhile, Metro’s largest in-house source of revenue — fares — provides no relief. Subway ridership, measured in passenger trips, is steadily declining. The agency blames the popularity of biking, car-sharing and telecommuting as well as federal job reductions and a lowered tax benefit for using public transit. In a rare admission last month, it also conceded frustration with balky service.
Coping with the revenue squeeze in the last budget cycle, the board instructed Metro’s financial staff to drastically reduce non-safety-related spending, and members are almost certain to do the same this year. Wiedefeld will have to oversee that process.
“We look forward to [Metro] getting the new general manager on board quickly to provide the needed leadership to address its serious safety, operational and financial issues,” Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn said in a statement.
D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who serves on the Metro board and was a member of the search committee, said Mayor Muriel E. Bowser and other council members support Wiedefeld’s selection.
Metro’s deep financial problems present another challenge.
A 2014 audit by the Federal Transit Administration found that Metro had been mismanaging federal grant money for years by violating procurement and spending rules and keeping shoddy, confusing records. The FTA ordered Metro to rectify numerous problems related to its handling of the funds, a “corrective action” process that has been going on for months and is expected to continue into next year.
In the meantime, the FTA has greatly restricted Metro’s access to grant money, creating a severe cash-flow crunch that has forced the transit agency into a cycle of short-term borrowing, repayments and more borrowing. To end that heavy reliance on short-term loans, and the interest payments that go with them, Wiedefeld will have to return Metro to the FTA’s good graces and persuade the federal agency to loosen the grant restrictions.
“We’re pleased to finally see this progress in bringing on new management for Metro after a year-long search,” Democratic Sens. Mark R. Warner and Timothy M. Kaine of Virginia and Barbara A. Mikulski and Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland said in a statement. “We are eager to meet with [Wiedefeld ] to emphasize our shared commitment and steady focus on turning-around the troubled Metro system.”
In announcing Wiedefeld as the next general manager, Metro quoted him as saying, “I am humbled and excited to learn of the board’s unanimous support, but believe it is inappropriate to comment further” until the board’s formal vote on Nov. 19.
This week, after corporate financial expert Neal S. Cohen, 55, declined the general manager job, the executive committee of the agency’s governing board turned to Wiedefeld, its other finalist for the position.
Wiedefeld was a vice president of the construction and engineering firm Parsons Brinckerhoff when Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) named him chief executive of BWI in 2002. Wiedefeld had no direct experience in airport management.
But he was widely credited with successfully overseeing a $1.8 billion BWI expansion project that Parsons Brinckerhoff had already begun when he took charge of the airport. The project included construction of a 26-gate Southwest Airlines terminal, parking garages and an off-site rental-car facility.
In 2005, two years into the administration of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), Wiedefeld returned to Parsons Brinckerhoff, where he led the company’s aviation consulting practice. After Martin O’Malley (D) became governor in 2007, he chose Wiedefeld to head the Maryland Transit Administration, which manages MARC commuter trains as well as light-rail and other transit systems.
Two years later, Wiedefeld began his second stint as BWI’s top manager, at a salary of about $294,000. In July, seven months after taking office, Gov. Larry Hogan (R) fired Wiedefeld and brought in a new chief executive at the airport.
Michael Goldman, who represents Maryland on the Metro board, said Hogan “absolutely” supports Metro’s choice of Wiedefeld. “When the governor came in, he wanted his own team, and he decided he wanted his own guy to head BWI,” Goldman said. “It was totally a political decision and no reflection on Paul’s capabilities or competence.”
Michael Laris and Lori Aratani contributed to this report.