Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

'Unflappable' Metro GM Richard Sarles visits The Kojo Nnamdi Show

April 2, 2012 - 02:12 PM
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(Photo: flickr/erin_m)

Richard Sarles, general manager and CEO of WMATA, appeared on The Kojo Nnamdi Show Monday afternoon to talk Metro and answer riders' questions. Sarles has pushed the rebuilding and rebranding efforts of the 36-year-old D.C. Metro system through what appears to be some of its most challenging, frustrating, and bewildering times. The interview was a wise move designed to humanize the agency's efforts and increase the appearance of transparency and credibility at a time when, for a variety of reasons, it faces legitimate doubts on those fronts. How did the transit leader do in his hour on WAMU?

Sarles played it cool: Nnamdi knows the emotion that goes along with transit and he joshed our Metro GM about commuter complaints. "Richard Sarles, so far unflappable. Let’s see if we can make him flappable after the break," the radio host wryly remarked at 12:40 p.m. Even when the hour ended 20 minutes later, Sarles continued to answer calmly and methodically, his answers veering from straightforward details to Metro Forward talking points. "It was a pleasure, as always," Sarles concluded.

"He lied cleverly," Kojo replied in jest.

Expect Metro hype about coming changes: In the next three months, Metro riders will see the onset of Rush Plus scheduling changes, a new Metro map, and a fare hike of some sort, all of which Sarles discussed. He said there will an "intense campaign over the next two months" to prepare our more than 700,000 daily riders for Rush Plus and minimized the fare hikes likely to hit in July.

"The proposal’s a relatively modest proposal compared to a couple of years ago," Sarles said. "Two years ago we were talking about the possibility of cutting service. This year, we’re talking about adding service."

Metro still doesn't see recent Washington Times critiques as credible: Luke Rosiak questioned the diversity of WMATA's workforce, its ability to hire new workers, its gag order, and the Transit Police in pieces over the course of the last two weeks. But when Nnamdi pressed on these points, Sarles echoed what he said in his letter to employees: "Frankly the series of articles was based on old data, incomplete data, misquotes." He uncomfortably reiterated that Metro is more diverse than the articles suggested and that the agency hopes to increase diversity. He's proud of the workers, he said. The corruption that WMATA itself has investigated — from credit cards to employee theft — was not mentioned.

Yes, Sarles rides the Metro: "If you look for me on the Yellow Line, you’ll see me during rush hour," Sarles remarked. He rides it six days a week. No specific policy requires employees to ride but he indicated that many senior staffers take it. "It’s really the most convenient way to get to our headquarters," he explained. The Jackson Graham headquarters, located in Chinatown, truly is quite close to the Gallery Place Metro.

Sarles relayed a couple of his own experiences on the Metro trains. He enjoys, for instance, one of the WMATA announcers on the Yellow Line and indicated her professional cheer adds a lot to his ride. Sarles also alluded to the persistent issue of younger riders who create security problems. "I do see kids that are boisterous," Sarles said of his own experience. "I’ve never felt threatened by them." In my past year and half of Metro riding, I would say the same despite various accounts of trouble.

No easy or good answer on all the Metro delays: With closures for repairs, closures for improvements, and closures for dysfunction, Metro suffers but the transit leader stressed the safety and well-being in the future rather than provide any soothing words for frustrated commuters now. Why, one caller asked, does Metro run all three given escalators even when there's hardly any riders at a station? Sarles said turning one off and then on would put more strain on older models and potentially create more mechanical trouble.

"It’s not the most robust system, if you will," Sarles admitted about the current escalators. WMATA plans to replace close to 100 of the escalators throughout the next few years.

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