Dormsjo spoke with The Washington Post on Tuesday night, shortly after the email announcing his resignation went out.
He answered some basic questions: Yes, he expects he’ll stay in D.C. when he starts his new job. No, he hasn’t spoken to Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) about potential replacements. No, he does not plan to give a “Churchill-ian” speech at Thursday’s Metro board meeting, which will be his last.
Dormsjo also reflected on some of the successes and dark moments he experienced as D.C.’s transportation czar.
On his most challenging moment at DDOT:
When Dormsjo was brought in by Bowser shortly after she was elected mayor, he was given an urgent mandate: Get the long-delayed D.C. Streetcar up and running. Immediately, it became clear that the problems with the nascent system were wide-ranging.
“I distinctly remember being notified the streetcar had caught on fire,” Dormsjo said, “and wondering whether or not the organization — or myself — had the wherewithal to fix all the things that needed to be fixed.”
From that story, in February 2015:
An unexplained “flash fire” atop a District streetcar late Saturday is under investigation, city officials said Sunday.
In a statement, the District’s Department of Transportation said “initial observations suggest this was an isolated incident,” but transportation officials did not explain why they think that to be the case or provide details on a possible cause. …
“The sparks extinguished very quickly on their own and fire suppression was not required by the first responders on the scene. The vehicle operator was safe due to the vehicle’s insulation from electrical current,” DDOT said. …
Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s new DDOT chief, Leif Dormsjo, said after his appointment in January that he would have the American Public Transportation Association bring in a team of industry experts to examine the city’s streetcar system. He said last week that the team is expected to take weeks to do its work and provide a list of steps the city can take to improve the streetcar line before people start riding.
Feb. 22, 2015: Streetcar ‘flash fire’ during storm prompts investigation, questions
The fire didn’t do much to instill confidence among D.C. residents.
“It was a challenging moment,” Dormsjo said Tuesday, “or one that I think marked a low point in my own confidence about the way forward.”
But, one year later, the streetcar finally debuted to the public, and residents started riding — even though the trains turned out to be a little slow.
“I really am very proud that the team that was working with me didn’t quit,” he said. “Going from that low point, to opening it up successfully and safely — that trajectory was very satisfying. It took a group of people that weren’t going to quit.”
On the state of the D.C. Metro:
Dormsjo joined the Metro board just a couple of months after the January 2015 smoke disaster at L’Enfant Plaza station — an appointment that required emergency legislation from the D.C. Council, part of an effort to tackle urgent financial and safety issues plaguing the transit agency.
It was a tumultuous time. After a train derailed between the Smithsonian and Federal Triangle stations in August 2015, the board sought out answers from Metro officials. When Chief Safety Officer James Dougherty appeared before the panel, Dormsjo took up a cutting line of questioning.
From that board meeting, in Sept. 2015:
At an unusually heated public meeting of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority board’s safety committee Thursday, Dougherty was among a trio of high-level managers grilled at length about the derailment.
… Dougherty told the committee that his department is responsible for broad, overarching safety policies within the agency and does not focus specifically on each of Metro’s hundreds of day-to-day operational activities, such as track inspections.
That prompted committee member Leif Dormsjo to call Dougherty’s department “a paper tiger,” saying: “It seems to me, by your own testimony today, you’ve got no information about what goes on at WMATA operationally … What’s the point of having a safety department if you’re not deeply embedded in the organization’s operations?”
Hours later, Metro announced Dougherty’s departure.
Dormsjo stands by that kind of toughness. Now, he says, there has been a “radical realignment of objectives and priorities,” and he has a “certain degree of confidence” that those changes have taken hold.
“I have been critical of the prior management group’s lack of attention to safety and system preservation, and gaps in the transparency of what was going on at Metro operations,” Dormsjo said.
“To have a board now that’s focused on the things I always felt were core to the service and the life of Metro — it’s pretty satisfying that that shift has taken place and we’re getting back to focusing on maintenance and customer service, reliability and the fundamentals.”
On his relationship with Bowser:
Dormsjo credits Bowser for her “outstanding support” of his policies and decisions — even when it may not have been politically expedient.
“She had been on the Metro board when the things that were problematic had taken hold,” Dormsjo said. “But she didn’t instinctually take a defensive position on that. She took a reformist position and then backed the delegation from the District that was focused on challenging some of the base assumptions about how Metro was being governed. And that took some guts.”
“That was really inspiring for me,” he added. “It gave me a strong signal that I should just focus on getting the right things done and be candid about any shortcomings. And that’s not necessarily typical of public officials.”
On the things he wishes he could’ve fixed:
There’s plenty to criticize about Dormsjo’s tenure at DDOT: He tried to institute a $1,000 fine for excessive speeding — a proposal that critics called unjustified, overly harsh and “a cash grab in the name of safety.” DDOT ended up lowering the fine.
And the D.C. Circulator continues to be plagued by frequent breakdowns and pervasive mechanical issues. On-time performance for the bus system this year dropped to its lowest level since at least 2012, according to data from DDOT.
Frequent bus breakdowns take toll on D.C. Circulator service
But when asked about his biggest regret from his tenure — the area where he wished he’d made more improvement — he didn’t talk about those issues. Instead, he brought up the issue of project management (which, it turns out, is exactly what he’ll be working on at his new gig in the private sector).
The District and DDOT have been lambasted for the snail-paced bureaucratic processes that keep development and construction from reaching fruition. Dormsjo said he’s proud of his efforts to find ways to expedite these processes — but he acknowledged that there’s much more to be done.
“We certainly have done a much better job on getting projects — whether they’re neighborhood safety enhancements or large construction projects — underway more quickly. But I still think there are ways to improve,” Dormsjo said.
“As I look back,” he added, “I still would hope that people in DDOT understand that they can continue to get high-quality projects done more swiftly, and in a way that’s responsive to the public’s needs. … We can deliver better, faster projects if we’re smart about how we organize them.”