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Posted at 2:30 PM ET, 01/25/2011

Sarles appointment offers Metro stability

By Robert Thomson

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.

By Robert Thomson  | January 25, 2011; 2:30 PM ET
Categories:  Metro  | Tags:  Dr. Gridlock, Richard Sarles  
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Stability, but not reform. And we need reform, as the system as is, is not stable.

Posted by: anarcho-liberal-tarian | January 25, 2011 3:04 PM | Report abuse

Who likes stability? We already have the stability of trains pulling to the front of the platform because they can't figure out how many cars they have on them (for 2 years now?). We have the "stability" of manually operated trains that jerk and lurch into every station. We have the stability of Metro police being nowhere to be seen when they're actually needed.

Do we need more stability?

Posted by: getjiggly1 | January 25, 2011 3:11 PM | Report abuse

You missed Sarles' best achievement, and the reason (in my un-insider opinion) that he is being offered the permanent job. He actually seems to be making a difference with respect to Metro's safety culture, which has been terrible for quite a long time. Changing institutional culture is a difficult task, and he's doing it.

Communications is important, but safety is even more important, and so far Sarles' record on it is good.

Posted by: dal20402 | January 25, 2011 4:10 PM | Report abuse

I like the conservative approach. I don't think its really that complicated. Its a beautiful system and it doesn't need to be turned upside down in order to make the needed upgrades. Security was lacking and Sarles could see that. It doesn't mean they think we're all terrorists. You've been working too hard, Doc. Have a drink.

Posted by: SusanMarie2 | January 25, 2011 4:11 PM | Report abuse

Doc, I just saw your picture. I see you think that was funny. :)

Posted by: SusanMarie2 | January 25, 2011 4:33 PM | Report abuse

From Dr. Gridlock: dal20402, What have you noticed over the past nine months that indicates the improvement in Metro's safety culture? (I don't have a contrary view. You might well be right. I think it's a tough thing to measure. But as I noted in the posting, one thing Sarles has done is provided the riders with a basic measure: the monthly Vital Signs scorecard. That's certainly a step in the right direction.)

Posted by: rtthomson1 | January 25, 2011 4:35 PM | Report abuse

First, I've seen the stories in the paper that indicate the agency is happy to follow the recommendations the NTSB made in the wake of the Fort Totten crash, and is spending millions to move up the construction schedule to expedite them. That is quite a contrast from the stonewalling the NTSB received when they first began investigating during Catoe's tenure.

Second, I've also seen reports that the internal management approach to safety has changed, becoming more of, well, a managerial function, and less of a defensively oriented fiefdom.

Finally, as a user, I've noticed changes. Employees in the rail system are paying more attention, bus drivers seem a bit more willing to wait at crosswalks, and I'm seeing less cell phone use.

Of course it's hard to measure and a regular member of the public (albeit one who worked in another transit agency for some years) can only get an indirect picture. But I'm encouraged, and I was aghast 15 months ago.

Posted by: dal20402 | January 25, 2011 4:55 PM | Report abuse

From Dr. Gridlock: dal20402, thanks for your observations and perceptions on this. I find that some of the best observations on traffic and transit issues come from "regular members of the public."

Posted by: Robert Thomson | January 25, 2011 5:47 PM | Report abuse

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