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Metro’s general manager to retire after six years as top executive

Wiedefeld, 66, was hired in 2015 to stabilize the agency after a fatal smoke incident. He will retire in six months.

Paul J. Wiedefeld, Metro's general manager, takes a train from Braddock Road Metro stop in Alexandria in 2019. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)

Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld, who led the nation’s third-largest transit agency out of a period of declining ridership, repeated safety failures that included a passenger’s death and a federal takeover of oversight, will retire this summer after leading the agency for six years, Metro announced Tuesday.

Wiedefeld, 66, had guided Metro toward a period of greater reliability and ridership growth before the coronavirus pandemic upended operations of transit agencies across the country. But the announcement of his departure comes as Metro is trying to navigate two crises that riders and government leaders say is hampering the region’s recovery: a train shortage amid a federal safety investigation and a reduction in bus service.

Wiedefeld’s retirement, effective in six months, adds another layer of uncertainty for a transit agency struggling to recover from historic revenue losses as many commuters abandoned offices for telework arrangements. Metro has stayed solvent through federal stimulus money, which is running out, putting transit leaders under a tight deadline to recruit new riders alongside plans to restore Metro to service levels riders were accustomed to before the pandemic.

With those challenges looming, Wiedefeld said it was time for Metro to find a leader willing to pilot the agency through years of transformation.

“Forty plus years in transportation teaches you that there is no set mile marker for this decision, but given the seismic shifts happening in transit and the region, Metro needs a leader who can commit to several years of service and set a new course.” he said in a statement. “This gives the Board time to identify a successor and ensures an orderly management transition.

Wiedefeld, who previously served as chief executive of Baltimore-Washington Marshall International Airport, informed Metro of his decision Tuesday.

He didn’t comment Tuesday on his departure beyond his statement, but regional leaders said the job was increasingly difficult amid challenges brought by the pandemic.

Michael Goldman, a former Metro board member who represented Maryland for eight years until his term expired in June, said Wiedefeld was the leader Metro needed after a period of instability. He said the timing is right for a change, given Metro’s immediate problems.

“It’s best to have a new CEO who can lead Metro out of this with a comprehensive plan,” Goldman said in an email.

Jeff McKay, chair of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, said he admired Wiedefeld’s ability to stay calm in a “very difficult job, during a very difficult time.”

“It’s always good to be thinking about the next chapter and this gives the [Metro] board that opportunity,” McKay (D) said in a text message. “That said, Paul has been an excellent GM from my vantage point but whoever succeeds him will need to have better support from the region politically, financially, and in governance to see better outcomes.”

Wiedefeld was hired in November 2015, about 10 months after a passenger died and dozens were sickened when a stalled train filled with smoke outside of L’Enfant Plaza. The event, which came after a string of incidents and federal investigations, was marred by delayed responses from first responders, emergency management mistakes and conflicting commands that imperiled passengers onboard the train, according to multiple investigations.

One month before Wiedefeld was hired, the Federal Transit Administration announced it would take over monitoring Metrorail safety. It was the first time the federal agency had put a major transit system under its direct supervision, an arrangement that lasted nearly three years until the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission, an agency Congress created in 2017, took over.

As he was hired, Wiedefeld announced that his goal was to prioritize safety over service — a mission he underlined four months into the job when he shut down the entire rail system for 24 hours to allow inspectors to search for deteriorating power cables.

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He launched SafeTrack in 2016, a more than $110-million blitz of maintenance that accelerated three years worth of track repairs and equipment replacement into a year, a massive project that created major disruption for commuters — a cost Wiedefeld said had to be paid for safety. The ensuing months led to a frustrating period for riders that included station shutdowns and intermittent delays as Wiedefeld emphasized returning Metro to what transit leaders called “a state of good repair.”

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Wiedefeld’s tenure was also marked by the inability to transform Metro’s workplace culture, as well as communication breakdowns that shielded serious safety issues from coming to light until years later. In 2020, the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission released a 50-page audit of Metro’s rail operations control center, or ROCC, that labeled the center a “toxic workplace” where employees were bullied, racially and sexually harassed, and told by managers to ignore authorities and operating procedures, creating chaos during emergencies and threatening passenger safety.

The audit resulted in scathing criticism from congressional leaders and the reshuffling of several top transit leaders.

In October, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) uncovered a defect in Metro’s 7000 series rail cars while investigating a Blue Line derailment on Oct. 12. The defect, which causes the cars wheels to widen away from each other, prompted the safety commission to suspend all 748 cars.

NTSB officials discovered that Metro inspectors had known of the flaw since 2017, but Wiedefeld and Metro board members said they had not been informed of the issue.

Wiedefeld said he will spend the next six months focusing on restoring bus and rail service to normal levels.

He said other priorities will be opening the long-delayed, nearly 11-mile extension of the Silver Line, which will connect Metrorail to Dulles International Airport. The stretch, which will bring Metro service to Loudoun County, is scheduled to open this year. He also will lead Metro’s efforts to move its headquarters from Judiciary Square to a complex nearing completion at L’Enfant Plaza.

Metro Board Chairman Paul C. Smedberg said Wiedefeld led Metro out of “very dark days.”

Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) said Wiedefeld made tough decisions during his tenure. He said the next general manager should “tackle the culture of mediocrity” at Metro, and “failure to do so will cause a backslide in the progress Wiedefeld made.”