Sarles promises action, Board mixed on bag searches
Richard Sarles was sworn in as General Manager and CEO of WMATA this afternoon. Members of the WMATA Board effusively praised his service so far and expressed optimism for good Board-GM relations in the near future. The Board also promised further discussion of the bag search program at a customer service committee meeting, though members had mixed opinions on the program itself.
In his statement, Sarles promised bold action, including in many of the areas which he hadn't yet tackled during his interim year. "The entire Metro family is daring mighty things," he said, and pledged to "leave this place better than [he] found it."
He committed to take action to improve customer service, including reviewing the effectiveness of the customer service center and bringing back "secret shoppers" to review customer service success. He also promised to implement the "virtual tunnel" allowing riders to transfer for free outside the system between Farragut North and West using SmarTrip.
Ironically, the "secret shopper" is something John Catoe had proposed, but which came under scorn for spending money on such a program amid budget cuts. If this is the best way to get real impartial data on customer service success, however, it's worth what's surely a very small expense.
Sarles also spoke about the importance of pushing for funding, including from Congress. Metro "needs to make COngress understand" how important the Metro system is to Washington, including to the federal government. Hopefully this signifies that he will work visibly to build support among the public and local and federal governments for Metro, in addition to managing internal operations.
Numerous public witnesses also criticized the bag search program, and the Riders' Advisory Council presented its resolution asking the Board to halt it amid concerns about its effectiveness, its impact on civil liberties, other potential use of police resources, and the lack of discussion at the Board before launching the program.
Two of the new members, DC Councilmember Tommy Wells and Montgomery County alternate Kathy Porter, both voiced concerns about the program. Porter emphasized that the safety and security of the system is very important, but that it's important to balance that against intrusiveness and other possible uses of resources.
New Arlington member Mary Hynes said she felt the Board had delegated the decision about bag searches to the General Manager, and that it's appropriate for them to leave the decision to him. The RAC and Board of Trade governance reports did both call for the Board to delegate specific operational decisions to the GM, but it was always the RAC's intention, at least, that the Board could and would still review decisions and have the opportunity to accept or reject recommendations.
Board member Jeff McKay from Fairfax argued that if the security professionals feel there is a credible threat, then he would want to trust their judgment. It's worth pointing out, though, that Metro Transit Police actually said during the RAC's hearing that there was in fact no specific threat, but just a general concern about terrorism broadly.
Federal member Mort Downey also talked about his confidence in the professionals and his fear of attacks. He noted that 25% of terrorist attacks worldwide have targeted surface transportation systems.
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