Sarles appointment offers Metro stability
When riding on a train or bus, we like stability. Do we also like it for the leadership of the transit authority in 2011?
On Thursday, the Metro board will tell us that the result of its nationwide search for a new transit authority leader has led right back to the old boss, Richard Sarles, the man the board picked last winter to serve as interim general manager following the resignation of John B. Catoe Jr. This is what Sarles said at the time in an interview with Post reporter Ann Scott Tyson:
"I have been asked why would I want this job, and if I want the permanent GM job," he said. "Let me be very clear, first, that I am not a candidate for the permanent GM job. I am taking this position as the interim GM because Metro is a vital public transportation system not only in this region but as a symbol for this entire country."
Metro still is a vital public transportation system, but something else must have changed. What could that have been?
Clearly, the board members are pleased with the job Sarles has done as interim chief. He took over in April with everyone believing he was the temporary boss of a troubled agency. Usually, that works about as well as a school day for a substitute teacher dealing with a rowdy class.
The board told Sarles not to manage like a caretaker, and he didn't. Sarles probably hasn't made all the moves he would have without "interim" at the start of his title, but neither did he sit tight and defer to the board on all decisions.
Several good moves: On his watch, Metro added the "vital signs report," a scorecard on some of the things riders care about, like on-time performance and the crime rate. He also focused the attention of his managers on improving the reliability of the elevators and escalators.
Bad move: Announcing in December that the transit police would immediately begin inspecting riders' bags at random. This fundamentally changed the relationship between the transit authority and its riders. From now on, they are to be treated as terror suspects. Some of them will be selected at random to prove their innocence before they are allowed to ride.
People have legitimate disagreements about whether this new policy has any effect on the security of riders. But I think this much was clear: Metro's leadership made no effort to reach out to riders, or the Riders' Advisory Council, to talk over its plan before imposing it. In doing show, the leadership displayed its tin ear for the opinions of riders.
This inability to interact with riders is a particularly stable part of the Metro environment. The transit authority rarely conveys a sense of "we're all in this together." Rather, it often presents itself as a bureaucracy focused on preserving its revenue streams. Institutions such as Congress or the Greater Washington Board of Trade that have the potential to interfere with those revenue streams must be held at bay.
While he hasn't started the permanent phase of his employment with Metro, Sarles hasn't presented himself as the face of change in this important area of communications. A GM in charge of a 10,000-person work force isn't going to be a stellar performer in all areas. It's entirely possible we'll remember Richard Sarles as the leader who successfully pursued the unglamorous, but vital mission of repairing the busted parts of an aging transit system.
But someone needs to play the critical role of connecting with the riders during the difficult effort to modernize the transit system.
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