Since I took the helm at Metro, riders, business and community leaders, government officials and employees have sent me a clear message: They want Metro to restore trust in safety, make trains and buses run reliably, and manage itself effectively.
To begin turning Metro around, we must confront some hard truths.
High-profile safety and security incidents have caused alarm. A deep-rooted operational safety culture has not taken hold, and hundreds of corrective actions are required. While crime on Metro remains relatively low, recent assaults have frightened customers, who deserve to be reassured through active policing strategies.
The erosion of service reliability is also a major concern. Last year, rail car mechanical failures doubled the number of late trains. Problems with doors, brakes and propulsion systems frequently result in customer offloads. Parts inventory and modern fleet management strategies are lacking. Riders are deeply frustrated by unpredictable track work on weekdays and weekends.
And on the financial side, Metro has significantly underspent its capital budget every year for more than 10 years. (Last year, Metro spent only 65 percent of its $1.1 billion capital budget.) Cost recovery has declined from 47 percent in 2011 to 45 percent today, mostly because fare revenue generation has slowed while operating costs have increased. Metro’s financial position is stable, and its cash flow is positive, but its finances are substandard compared with the finances of other transit authorities, and it requires enormous efforts to deliver timely financial reports and clean audits.
To continue balancing its budget in the long term, Metro would require a combination of operating subsidies and passenger fare increases of about 6 percent a year over the next decade just to keep pace with cost growth for existing service. As with other transit systems, cost escalation is driven primarily (73 percent) by personnel expenses to operate, maintain and manage bus and rail services. Unlike other systems, Metro has no clearly defined multiyear operating funding plan.
Finally, I am restructuring Metro’s executive team to provide businesslike accountability and customer focus.
Turning around Metro requires setting priorities and developing a realistic schedule for change in these key areas.
To improve safety and security and restore public trust, Metro will recruit a new chief safety officer to lead a culture change; begin installing new radio systems, including cabling for cellphone service in tunnels; create online reports to monitor all actions taken to meet National Transportation Safety Board and Federal Transit Administration safety recommendations; and double police patrols at busy travel times and increase the number of officers on trains, on buses and in stations.
We will improve reliability and customer experience by implementing a plan to reduce waiting times and crowding, developing a “get well” plan for rail cars that reduces delays and offloads, revising the track maintenance program to reduce delays, and launching traffic signal prioritization for buses in seven key corridors.
And finally, to alter Metro’s fiscal trajectory and renew stakeholders’ confidence in the system, we will deliver a timely audit for fiscal 2016; reduce back-office costs and eliminate redundant positions; develop a framework for collective bargaining agreements that respects the workforce, is more responsive to customers and delivers cost efficiencies; reduce overhead costs through public-private partnerships for select paratransit routes and parking management; and analyze revenue potential from the sale of Metro’s headquarters building that could be used for customer service initiatives.
To restore public confidence, the Customer Accountability Report at wmata.com includes a more detailed list of actions underway. It does not address, however, the unrelenting foundational issues of funding and governance identified by virtually every Metro stakeholder. Those matters, including Metro’s operating structural deficit, are being properly considered by the board of directors and Metro jurisdictions. I look forward to supporting their efforts to improve Metro for the benefit of the whole region.
The writer is general manager and chief executive of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.