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5 top issues for Richard Sarles

The Washington Post has an op-ed from me in their Local Opinions section this morning. It lists some important issues which need Richard Sarles' attention, now that he's become WMATA's longer-term CEO instead of interim General Manager.

Photo by erin m on Flickr.
Dear Richard Sarles,

Congratulations on being appointed chief executive officer of Metro.

You've already made a lot of progress as an interim leader. You've started creating a culture of safety and fixing unsafe conditions. You've stabilized a rudderless organization. You've published concrete performance metrics and commissioned assessments of problem areas, like escalators.

Now that you're going to be staying for a while, there are some big long-term problems that need your attention.

Those issues are customer service, Metrorail capacity, bus priority corridors, a long-term funding plan, and Metro's internal culture. Read the whole piece on the Post Web site.
David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. 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 now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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Re: Sell a long-term funding plan

Any reason you did not mention the exploding pension and health care costs? Both are growing and will continue to grow much faster than GDP, and are thus unsustainable:

From the FY11 budget to FY12 budget, health care grew 6%, while pensions grew 8.8%!

GGW even had a post touching on the pension problem:

by EJ on Jan 30, 2011 10:26 am • linkreport

I agree that the pensions and labor costs are an issue. There was limited space in the piece, but it's a fair point.

by David Alpert on Jan 30, 2011 10:31 am • linkreport

Pensions are a problem at WMATA because the local governments took a five year holiday in making contributions furthermore they have yet to address the funding costs associated with new accounting rules. In FY 2000 the Metro eliminated defined benefit pensions for administrative employees but still have a defined benefit plan for most operating personnel. However, the existence of defined benefit pensions is manageable with proper employer,employee contributions. Citing rising pension costs is a little disingenuous giving the Metro's funding record. The Metro Board created the problem and this is just another example of robbing Peter to pay Paul and exactly what led to the system failures that caused the train crash.

The Metro CEO is not responsible for generating a regional transportation plan and unfortunately it's not clear that a plan for the future exists unless it has been developed by the Council of Governments. While work has progressed on providing power to support for eight car trains, virtual transfers, and some line realignment no serious talk of new tunnels, lines, or bridges seems to happening. 2025-2030 will be upon us sooner than you can imagine and the original system took over 25 years to build.

Most of the 106+ Metro system was built with 80% or more Federal Funding. Unfortunately, the Federal Sector has no willingness currently to shoulder a major share of mass transit funding. This is not something Mr. Sarles has any control over. Mr. Sarles can return the system to a safe and reliable state which is the real customer service that patrons need.

by Interested on Jan 30, 2011 11:01 am • linkreport

Why no cross-post?

by Jasper on Jan 30, 2011 12:41 pm • linkreport

Why no cross-post?

He linked to the Post's site. If they're going to give him the platform to raise the issues, it's in his best interest not to violate their copyright by re-posting the text here.

by Rich on Jan 30, 2011 1:09 pm • linkreport

@EJ What do you think Metro should do about health car costs? 6% is actually fairly low. The average company is looking at about 10%.

Obviously, health care inflation is a real problem, but it's not one that metro can solve.

by jcm on Jan 30, 2011 1:52 pm • linkreport

In principle I agree with the editorial, but I would organize the narrative differently. Bottom line - humans suck at five point plans. If you can keep your message to 2-3 items, it is much more likely to be sticky.

To me it has to start with a long-term funding plan. If Metro can't establish long-term funding, the existing downward spiral will only get worse. While improving service is nice, judging by the utilization numbers Metro is clearly the best available alternative for a large number of people, no matter how bad it sucks.

In order to establish long-term funding, Sarles needs to do two things:
a) demonstrate to municipalities the value of Metro as a public service. This is where the bully pulpit comes in.
b) gain the trust from municipalities that funds they provide will be used wisely. The best way to do this is to produce cost savings over time through continual process improvement (and I suppose changing the internal culture is necessary to get to this point).

Once you have some financial stability, you can work on improvements in other areas that will make Metro the most efficient means of transit for more people. This is where a wide variety of things comes into play, including but not limited to improving customer service, expanding capacity, and establishing more efficient bus corridors (IMHO bus priority corridors is too narrow a term).

by movement on Jan 30, 2011 5:35 pm • linkreport

@ Movement--

You hit the nail on the head. Metro needs to start with the fundamentals. I might have reversed a) and b) on your list so that we start with efficiently using the money and expanding on from there.

But that's semantics. Nice post.

by WRD on Jan 30, 2011 6:18 pm • linkreport

@ Rich: it's in his best interest not to violate their copyright by re-posting the text here.

Again a sign that copyright is broken.

@ Sarles/WMATA: What WMATA needs the most is a vision. WMATA does not work, because nobody in WMATA knows what they're working towards.

WMATA is very much like Belgium, a country that hasn't had a decent government in the last three years. Both are just stumbling along from incident to incident. People do what they're kinda supposed to do, but that's it. Nobody thinks ahead, nobody really plans for anything. People are frustrated, afraid over new things, and unsure why and what to do about it.

WMATA needs to get a vision. A vision that fixes the poor financial state. A vision that fixes the bloated union contract. A vision that fixes escalators. A vision that increases safety but also acknowledges the limits of safety. A vision that present a clear plan with choices for the region. Pay this little and you keep the crummy system. Pay a bit more, and the current system will continue to functions with all its limitations. Pay this much more and you get a new line, better buses, whatever. But clear choices. Those choices can then be made, and everybody will know what to do.

by Jasper on Jan 30, 2011 8:33 pm • linkreport

I'm no fan of any aspect of our copyright system, but it's perfectly reasonable for a major outlet that publishes a work to do so on the condition that the author doesn't also post it elsewhere!

by David desJardins on Jan 30, 2011 8:57 pm • linkreport

@ David desJardins: it's perfectly reasonable for a major outlet that publishes a work to do so on the condition that the author doesn't also post it elsewhere!

Is it? Why?

It is only reasonable if the Post is worried about competition from the publication elsewhere. Is the Post really worried about competition from personal blogs and local blogs like GGW? If so, then the Post is in deeper trouble than I assumed.

by Jasper on Jan 31, 2011 9:55 am • linkreport

@Jasper: It is only reasonable if the Post is worried about competition from the publication elsewhere. Is the Post really worried about competition from personal blogs and local blogs like GGW?

How would you decide if a blog is "like GGW"? I think it is perfectly reasonable for the Post to have a uniform policy on items they accept for publication, rather than trying to subjectively assess the degree of competition, or lack thereof, from every possible alternative medium.

by David desJardins on Jan 31, 2011 1:05 pm • linkreport

@ David des Jardin:How would you decide if a blog is "like GGW"?

You don't. You just allow op-eds to be cross-posted on blogs that the writer regularly writes on. Why have a blanket policy limiting the publication?

BTW: You still have not answered my question why it is perfectly reasonable for a major outlet that publishes a work to do so on the condition that the author doesn't also post it elsewhere!

by Jasper on Jan 31, 2011 2:23 pm • linkreport

You just allow op-eds to be cross-posted on blogs that the writer regularly writes on.

Some of those do have very large readerships, and having material that the Post publishes be content that its readers might well also see elsewhere reduces their appeal.

Ultimately, it's reasonable because it serves a purpose that is important to them, and most of their potential contributors accept it, so they have little reason to change the policy. There are other possible policies that would also be reasonable; this is not the only reasonable policy, but it's one option in the space of reasonable policies.

by David desJardins on Jan 31, 2011 4:59 pm • linkreport


Great post, it's possible David had to fill a certain amount of column inches / words. Giving Sarles the top 2 things he needs to work on makes sense, my vote? Funding #1 and long term planning #2 which David nails with the capacity (2) and funding (4) sections.

IMHO better customer service and making METRO a great place to work (1st and 5th items) are important but too hard to measure and frankly nearly impossible to improve as every CEO has talked about them forever. Squishy stuff doesn't make for report card items.

by Mike D on Jan 31, 2011 6:22 pm • linkreport


by Jerome on Jan 31, 2011 6:22 pm • linkreport


You are probably right, we were all spoiled when the system was brand new, and the system had a ton of spare capacity.

However a CEO who gets the funding and begins planning to add more capacity would be a major accomplishment and that CEO would be remembered fondly for decades to come.

by Mike D on Jan 31, 2011 6:26 pm • linkreport

In the future, please do not use all caps. As I'm sure you're aware, on the internet, all caps writing is considered shouting. And that is not conducive to the civil discourse we hope to foster at Greater Greater Washington.

Thank you for understanding.

by Matt Johnson on Jan 31, 2011 8:12 pm • linkreport

So nice that you congratulated Sarles on his new appointment and gave him support and ideas for improvement. A very nice overture. Glad the Post published it.

by Tina Slater on Feb 7, 2011 8:49 pm • linkreport

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