Lots of Applicants, Lots of Problems

Metro's next leader will face big problems

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    WASHINGTON - FEBRUARY 13: A sign that reads "Security Alert" is on display as Metro Rail riders depart a subway station February 13, 2003 in Washington, DC. Last week, U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge increased the level of alert from yellow to orange because of intelligence that suggested a growing threat from Osama bin Laden's terrorist network. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

    Members of the Metro board of directors tell the Washington Post that their search for a permanent general manager “has attracted a strong pool of candidates, including some managers who have no transit background.”

    Some board members expressed surprise that they attracted “such a high volume of interest” -- as many as two dozen active candidates thus far -- given Metro’s safety issues and funding woes. Interim General Manager Richard Sarles is on a 12-month contract that will expire in early April 2011.

    Board chairman Peter Benjamin, alternate member Jeff McKay, and two other board members make up the search committee. They did not give the Post any specifics on the candidates, nor did they say when the new general manager will be hired. That, they indicated, will depend on how candidate interviews go this fall.

    McKay told the Post, “I was shocked at the unprecedented and highly advanced people who have expressed interest in the job.”

    “Shocked” is right. People want this job?

    One item that will be waiting on the next chief’s desk will be the implementation of safety recommendations made by the National Transportation Safety Board in July. A new estimate says the fixes, offered in the wake of the June 2009 Metro crash that killed nine people, could cost at least $935 million.

    In a letter to Sen. Barbara Mikukski, Benjamin said the replacement of 300 of Metro’s 1000 series rail cars would cost $838 million, while track circuit module replacements and a full analysis of the automatic train control system would add on an additional $80 million. Other fixes would make up the rest.

    While Benjamin hopes that $300 million in federal grants and local matching funds will help defray the costs, $935 million is an awfully big bill for a system with a $1.4 billion annual operating budget. Is WMATA at least trying to save money where it can?

    Apparently not. A reader tells Unsuck D.C. Metro about a recent 20-minute telephone survey call. The reader “was asked to rate almost everything from the escalators to the employees’ level of customer service to the cleanliness of the Metro cars on a scale of one to seven.”

    According to the blog, WMATA is paying an outside company $148,000 to perform the survey. Asked why WMATA would “pay a private company to conduct this survey when riders already share their concerns and complaints with WMATA by email and phone,” a representative said the survey “consists of on-going tracking of customer satisfaction among a representative sample of Metro’s ridership.”

    Fair enough, but aren’t riders already providing this data? Metro receives piles of complaints and suggestions each day, with information on who the passengers are, and how they use the system. Surely this information must be good for something.

    The reader noted that at the end of the call, “I was asked if I would be willing to be contacted again to share my views. I said yes, but frankly how much more complaining do they need to hear from the riders until they get it?”


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