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Metro's new boss is promising to turn the transit authority, with its 13,000 employees and one million daily passenger trips, into a customer-focused business.
To that end, general manager Paul Wiedefeld, who rides a short stretch of the Red Line to the office, has been reaching out to Metro’s stakeholders since taking the job Nov. 30. He has sat down with legislators and held public forums with riders. He has made a point of getting out of WMATA headquarters to listen to unvarnished views of what is wrong with the second-busiest subway system in America.
On Tuesday, Wiedefeld was close enough to riders he could have whispered in their ears.
The 60-year-old GM squeezed aboard a packed Orange Line train in Vienna, accepting an invitation from Congressman Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) to experience first-hand the challenges commuters deal with on a daily basis. And the timing was perfect.
A pair of cracked rails led to extensive single-tracking delays, turning the ride into downtown Washington into a herky-jerky slog. Wiedefeld, Connolly, a few of their respective staff members, and a handful of reporters stood cheek by jowl with riders on the uncomfortable ride.
“I wanted him to see this,” said Connolly, who has called on Metro to increase the Orange Line’s capacity by running more 8-car trains.
Some riders seemed happy to meet Wiedefeld, even if they did not immediately recognize the man engaging in conversation on the stuffed railcar underneath the constant overhead announcements from the train operator.
“Oh, is he the new Metro commissioner person?” asked Jessica Neiterman, who closed a large book she was reading to chat up Wiedefeld. The new general manager laughed off his mistaken title and carefully listened to Neiterman vent about her Metro problems.
“The main one is getting into work on time. I think this was either the third or the fourth train that I had to wait to get on,” she said.
“I hope you can improve the system and not raise costs too high because that would scare away riders, and improve the safety issues so another incident that happened last year doesn’t happen again,” Neiterman added, referring to the L’Enfant Plaza smoke fiasco that ended the life of Carol Glover of Alexandria on Jan. 12, 2015.
Wiedefeld responded: “My number one priority is safety obviously. That is the primary focus. In terms of the fares, I have not recommended a fare increase or service cut this year. As you may or may not know, we have a lot of fiscal issues, so we have to get those under control. That will be the focus over the next six, nine months.”
Others showed no interest in talking to the man who has a lot on his plate.
“I haven’t met him. I have been standing aside him for the last 35 minutes. He’s getting beat down all the time, nothing but negative comments,” said Craig McCall, who said he is growing impatient with Metro’s chronic service problems.
A Metro rider since the late 1990s, McCall spends about $18 on parking and round-trip fares each day. He is thinking about going back to driving.
“I have been reading a couple things in the paper how [Wiedefeld] wants to bring riders back. I’ll have to give it some time to see how it goes, right?” McCall said.
Of the many problems in the WMATA universe, ordinary commuters usually are focused on their personal commutes: will the trains run on time? Will there be any seats available aboard the train?
In Melanie Brunson's case, there's an additional concern: whether she can understand the announcements. She relies on them because she is blind and needs to hear which line is arriving at the station (the Blue, Orange, and Silver Lines share the tracks through downtown D.C.)
“I’ve stopped and figured it, and I would say at least 60 percent of the trains there is no announcement at all,” said Brunson as she sat with her guide dog. Wiedefeld listened.
"The majority of time they make the announcement, it is either garbled so you can’t understand, or they make it and this really annoys me — as they are closing the doors," Brunson said.
Metro’s general manager responded that improving communication during regular operations and emergencies remains a top priority, based on his early discussions with the disability rights community.
What may have appeared as an easy opportunity to get good press — reporters were invited by Rep. Connolly to join Wiedefeld aboard the train — was just another day to listen to riders to achieve his goal of making Metro rider-focused, said Wiedefeld, who used to run BWI Airport and the Maryland Transit Administration.
“This is just how I manage. There is nothing unique for me. It helps me understand what's going on, and helps me challenge our staff to do better,” he said.
Although fixing Metro’s day-to-day mishaps is the new general manager’s immediate priority, other, more political issues have not disappeared.
During Tuesday morning’s trip, Congressman Connolly repeated his call for the federal government to begin subsidizing Metro’s $1.8 billion operating budget, which currently is funded through fare revenues and subsidies from D.C., local jurisdictions in Virginia, and the state of Maryland.
“The federal government is the only partner in the compact that does not provide an operating subsidy, and arguably the federal government is the single biggest beneficiary of Metro,” Connolly said. “When Metro doesn’t work, federal workers can’t get to work.”
For his part, Wiedefeld has declined to take a public position on whether the federal government should directly contribute to the operating budget or if the transit system might be better served by a regional sales tax.
In the meantime, Metro’s new boss will be busy restoring public confidence in WMATA,” Connolly said.
“What I believe Mr. Wiedefeld faces as a challenge is not fixing a few discreet things that have gone wrong,” he said.
“He has to turn around an entire organization that has descended into an acceptance of mediocrity, very bad customer relations, serious quality control issues, and that translates to reliability and safety. Those are massive challenges.”