"I don’t see [Metro] as a mess," says Paul Wiedefeld, Metro's pick for a new general manager. "I see it as a challenge."
Metro’s incoming general manager vowed to create a “world-class system” in his first public remarks since reaching an agreement in principle to lead the capital region’s transit authority. Paul Wiedefeld is expected to sign a contract soon and be introduced to the public at Metro’s scheduled board meeting on Thursday.
Wiedefeld, 60, emerged from a private meeting Tuesday on Capitol Hill with members of the region’s congressional delegation.
“I am reaching out to as many stakeholders as I can," Wiedefeld said. "I wanted to share some of my ideas, but more importantly listen to the [delegation]. What are their concerns? What [do] they want me to focus on?"
Wiedefeld declined to divulge details of the discussion because his hiring will not become official until Thursday. "We have issues we are going to address. We are going to create the world-class system that we all want,” he said.
The No. 2 choice
Wiedefeld has spent 30 years in the public and private sectors, most recently as chief executive of BWI Airport. He has experience running a public transit system, too, from his time at the top of the Maryland Transit Administration where he oversaw the operations of MARC commuter trains and Baltimore’s light rail, bus and paratransit systems.
My parents had six kids. I’m the fifth in line and I have three older brothers. It doesn’t bother me at all.
— Paul Wiedefeld, on being Metro's second choice
He has a reputation for being open and accessible, but presently most Metro riders know him as the No. 2 choice.
The top pick, airline and aerospace industries financial executive Neal Cohen, dropped out of contract negotiations with Metro’s board of directors because he did not want to deal with the intense public scrutiny that comes with the job of running America’s second-busiest subway system.
When asked about being the Metro board’s second choice, Wiedefeld appeared unruffled. “My parents had six kids. I’m the fifth in line and I have three older brothers. It doesn’t bother me at all,” he said, laughing.
First or second, Wiedefeld is inheriting a slew of problems concerning the reliability and safety of rail and bus operations as well as fiscal difficulties, all well-documented in the past year since a passenger died aboard the Yellow Line south of L’Enfant Plaza station on Jan. 12.
"I don’t see it as a mess. I see it as a challenge. That’s what drives me. That’s what I am looking forward to. I think it will be a fantastic job,” Wiedefeld said.
For now, Wiedefeld is a rider. He's been taking the Red Line and said he intends to ride the train regularly. “As a rider, it’s fantastic system in terms of its access. There [are] definitely some performance issues we have to address,” he said.
'He gets it'
Members of the region’s congressional delegation praised Metro’s next leader after their first meeting.
“I’m impressed,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.). “I think the general manager-designate gets it. I think he understands the extent of the problems. He was not defensive. He was open to ideas and observations about the defects in the system.”
When asked if it's unrealistic to expect one person to solve all Metro’s problems, Connolly responded, “We have to be careful managing expectations, but I also think the general manager sets the tone and sets the standards of accountability and performance. That is very important for him to do early on, and we stressed that today.”
Congress has a large stake in Metro. Federal dollars cover about 40 percent of its capital budget to rebuild the system’s infrastructure. While elected officials may expect results from Wiedefeld, Metro may have a request or two from Congress.
In June, the Republican-led House passed a transportation appropriations bill that slashed the annual funding for Metro’s capital improvement plan from $150 million to $100 million. The transit authority and its supporters are looking to the Senate to restore the funding when it begins its appropriations process.
Each year Metro’s three major jurisdictions (D.C., Virginia and Maryland) have provided $50 million each, matching the federal funding for a total of $300 annually to help rebuild the transit system’s inner workings.
Congresswoman Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) voted against her party’s majority in the House appropriations process. After meeting Wiedefeld, she said the region is united behind Metro.
“Safety is our No. 1 concern. Obviously with the recent events in Paris, safety is an even bigger concern now, as well as reliability, which is increasingly a problem,” Comstock said. “I feel very good about his enthusiasm for the job and he understands he has a big mission ahead.”