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Opinion A new Metro chief faces a daunting future

Metro Board Chairman Paul C. Smedberg, at podium, introduces Randy Clarke, second from right, during a news conference in D.C. on May 10. (Justin George/The Washington Post)
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Memo to Randy Clarke, the newly named chief of D.C.’s transit system: Metro is in trouble. Please rescue it.

Mr. Clarke, whose appointment was announced Tuesday, is an experienced transit executive. He spent six years working his way up to a relatively senior position in Boston, at the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, one of the nation’s largest systems. But for the past four years he has run a much smaller network, in Austin, with a fraction of Metro’s employees, daily ridership and, quite likely, challenges. Is he up to the job he faces?

Among the nation’s transit agencies, Metro, which runs the United States’ third-busiest transit rail network, is not alone in facing a daunting future. The pandemic has decimated ridership and cast a pall on finances for the foreseeable future. In the fiscal year starting in summer 2023, Metro’s budget will be nearly $500 million short — about one-quarter of current expenses. That’s a huge problem.

It’s not just Metro’s problem; it’s the region’s. Because there can be no real economic recovery — no full revival of the dead zones that before March 2020 were hopping neighborhoods and night spots — without a robust transit system. That means buses and, especially, subways that run reliably, frequently and with sufficient capacity to avoid overcrowding.

At the moment, the system is anything but robust. Combined bus and rail ridership is higher than the rock-bottom forecasts made more than a year ago, when the pandemic’s retreat was not yet in sight. But weekday subway passenger counts, in particular, remain paltry — down by roughly two-thirds from their pre-pandemic level.

What are the prospects for recovery? For starters, federal employees, many of whom are still working remotely, will need to return to their offices in greater numbers than they have so far. That is beyond Mr. Clarke’s control. Yet it remains unclear whether Metro can accommodate pre-pandemic ridership levels. Owing to a still-unresolved safety problem involving the wheels of the newest generation of Metrorail cars, the subway has been crippled for seven months, having lost rail cars that made up nearly 60 percent of its fleet. Metro hopes they will be back in service this summer with a new monitoring system — sensors installed on the tracks to detect wheel problems if they occur — but there is no guarantee. For now, as subway passenger counts increase, crowding has made for unpleasant subway commutes; that is likely to get worse.

The wheel problem is a symptom of the more profound problem that Mr. Clarke will need to address. Metro’s current general manager, Paul J. Wiedefeld, who is retiring, was able to make Metro more reliable and safer through a blitz of upgrades and repairs, but there are lingering signs that building Metro’s culture of safety is a work in progress, to put it charitably. To name one: The 7000-series wheel problem had been detected by Metro workers in 2017, but no one thought to mention it to Mr. Wiedefeld, Metro’s board of directors or the safety commission that oversees the system, before it caused a derailment last fall.

That’s deeply concerning. Mr. Clarke has his work cut out.