Greater Greater Washington

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Sarles could provide useful stability for a few years

Governor O'Malley sort-of-confirmed this morning that the WMATA Board is planning to keep on Richard Sarles as permanent General Manager/CEO. While Sarles isn't what WMATA needs in the long run and might not tackle the bigger, long-term problems, but he could be a good source of stability as WMATA extricates itself from its immediate crises.


Photo by tracktwentynine on Flickr.

Both the Riders' Advisory Council and Board of Trade recommended making the General Manager role more of a CEO. The CEO should be the public face of WMATA, and develop a clear vision plan for getting the agency where it needs to be with issues like funding, labor relations, and more. The CEO should publicly advocate for his vision and engage with stakeholders directly and through the press.

Long-term, Metro needs some serious changes. The administrative structure is very ossified, departments work in silos and don't communicate enough, and really talented change agents have little ability to accomplish great things. Too many good people end up just leaving for other kinds of jobs.

Sarles hasn't been that kind of strong and visible leader, and as interim GM, he hasn't tackled the big problems. He's been quiet, but has built up better relations with local officials and bodies like the NTSB. That's something Metro really needs. He's launched a good "vital signs" report to track progress, and set up a very specific checklist of issues he would tackle this year.

On the other hand, other than not having any crashes, he hasn't done much (or at least not much yet) to improve customer service, WMATA's notoriously poor relationship with the press or its secretive culture, or really engaged with riders or the public at all. His defense of a wrong-headed bag search program based on no data whatsoever is disappointing.

For another year or two, maybe what WMATA needs most is just for everything to be really stable. Many Board seats are turning over, which will bring in some great new blood but also lose some institutional memory. That could make this a relatively bad time to also bring in a brand-new GM.

In other words, if Sarles' leadership has been positive for one year, why not keep it going for another year or two?

The big question, once he doesn't have an immediate end date, is whether he will start to deal with these longer-term issues. WMATA needs to lead on bringing jurisdictional partners together to find some more sustainable revenue sources. The Board and GM/CEO need to attack the organizational culture.

There aren't many reasons to believe this will suddenly happen. His approach to safety has been too reactive and short-term, which has made the NTSB happy but leaves some issues unsolved. Devoting all resources to safety has also taken all money away from upgrading the infrastructure to handle more 8-car trains. Without that, Metro is already nearly at capacity on some lines, and overcrowding on platforms can cause its own safety problems.

Will we be dealing with other safety threats in a few years and look back baffled as to why the leadership of today didn't tackle them, just as people reacted to John Catoe not having done anything about failing track signals?

Perhaps fortunately, Sarles is not going to be GM for a long time. He was already at retirement when he came on board. He'll probably only stay for a few more years.

Rather than thinking of him as permanent General Manager, I'm going to consider him the longer-term interim GM, but not the CEO many have called for. An interim GM like him could be just what WMATA needs for a couple of years. However, the Board shouldn't completely stop thinking about how to find the real CEO who will truly lead WMATA where it has to go. In a couple of years, that'll again be their task.

David Alpert is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Greater Greater Washington and Greater Greater Education. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He loves the area which is, in many ways, greater than those others, and wants to see it become even greater. 

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Frame change suggestion: Mikhail Gorbachev. In 1986 or whenever, you'da never thought.

by jnb on Jan 21, 2011 4:06 pm • linkreport

I respectfully disagree with the opinion that Sarles should be the GM for a couple years before bring in a GM that will be considered permanent. Everyone knows that Sarles is old and past retirement age. Sarles is going to be considered by many to be a lameduck CEO, someone who isn't going to be around long, someone who clearly won't have the political capital or support to bring about the degree of change that is needed.

There is never a good time to bring in a new GM. Things aren't really going to be much better in 1-3 years when we need to replace Sarles. If the Board did not find the right candidate they should restart the search, use a different search firm and put more effort into finding someone who really wants to change things. The cost of waiting far outweigh the cost of restarting the search. Hiring Sarles is just one more indication of how bad things have become at WMATA.

My last hope was that the board could find a real leader that could start down the path of turning things around. Unfortunately, when you have a board composed primarily of government bureaucrats, they have a hard time finding good leadership since they have seen so little good leadership in their own professional careers that they have a hard time recognizing leadership.

We should really consider privatizing WMATA. Yes, there would be some downsides to doing so, but for heavens sack, it really couldn't get any worse than what we have now, and there is some chance it could be improved. Perhaps some kind of private/public partnership like many airports have in place would work. Something, anything, other than our current situation is needed.

by Jim on Jan 21, 2011 4:26 pm • linkreport

The university I attended had a pretty bad scandal involving the president of the university a year or so before I started - sex, booze, financial malfeasance... you know, the usual. The replacement president was a very mild, straight laced man - an ex-priest, actually. He made no bold moves and achieved nothing of major note and was retired five years later to make way for a very dynamic president who shook things up (for the better) and really developed the university.

So, although I'm not so enthusiastic about Sarles, he might do for Metro what that ex-priest did for my university - provide stability to get beyond the scandal and set the stage for a real good and bold leader in a few years time.

by Anonymous Coward on Jan 21, 2011 4:27 pm • linkreport

Another thing Sarles has not done is the Lunch Time chats, which I thought were good community outreach.

Sarles just seems like such a blah choice. I wonder if they just couldn't find someone better?

@Jim:
What gets better under privatization? It maybe worth consideration but I have always been skeptical of that route.

by Steven Yates on Jan 21, 2011 4:42 pm • linkreport

Regarding the issue of 8 car trains, I think it is important to point out Metro is not retiring and replacing the 1000 series cars early due to the NTSB reccomendations. The 1000 series cars were according to Wikipedia delivered in 1976. That means they will be hitting 35 years of age this year and will be about 38 years old when retired which is not a premature retirement. In order to run more 8 car trains, WMATA needs to both upgrade the supporting infrastructure (power supply, yard/shop capacity) AND buy more cars. Don't blame the inability to buy new cars on the need to replace the 1000 series cars because they do need to be replaced.

by Dharm on Jan 21, 2011 4:43 pm • linkreport

You have to consider, the other candidate was Nat Ford ( http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/blogs/cityinsider/detail?entry_id=80981 ), and Sarles is a clear winner compared to Ford.

But it's not a job to wish upon anybody. GOP House is going to cut federal funding to WMATA to near zero, the jurisdictions are awful hard up, etc. Other transits around the country have been hit hard in the past couple years as local tax base has disintegrated, but WMATA feels the big impact in the next year or two and gets the double whammy of having federal funding disappear at the same time.

by B.O. on Jan 22, 2011 8:02 am • linkreport

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