News4's Adam Tuss spoke exclusively with Richard Sarles, the general manager for WMATA. Sarles said the transportation system is playing "catch-up" and has a slew of oncoming projects to improve commuter experience.
Metro General Manager Richard Sarles says the often troubled transit agency is turning the corner.
In a wide-ranging, exclusive interview with News4 Wednesday, Sarles said he has seen the transit agency move from constantly fighting fires (literally and figuratively), to his promises about re-building Metro and its credibility.
He also talked candidly about issues like the FBI relocating near a Metro station, a possible shut-down of the Red Line, digging pedestrian tunnels to connect Metro stations and how the new Silver Line will be a game-changer.
“You are seeing the evidence of a planned program and you are beginning to see the results of it," Sarles said. “In some respects, certainly, we are playing catch-up with getting the system back into shape.”
For instance, he says it will take Metro another four to five years to get the system's nearly 600 escalators back at an optimum level of service.
Metro has been undergoing a massive rebuilding effort for the past number of years – Sarles was hired with that focus in mind.
Described by some as a “red pen” kind of guy who reads all the fine print, he doesn’t seem to mind that moniker.
“When I first got here, we were in a firefighting mode, practically every day if not every week," Sarles admitted. "We were going from mini crisis to mini crisis. I made promises about rebuilding this place. We are now spending our capital program at double the rate where we were a few years ago. So yes, we still have incidents, but they are not as often."
Evidence that Metro is getting ready to spend more on its own infrastructure will come Thursday, as the agency’s second in command, Rob Troup, will lay out a lengthy list of planned improvements to the system.
Among the key points from the Metro document:
Bicycle and pedestrian access improvements are also planned. Lighting in parking garages will be improved, and a new electronic payment system that will allow riders to pass through faregates by tapping their smartphone, credit card or government ID will also be tested.
On the topic of the FBI relocating to a new area near a Metro station, Sarles smiled and said that is “very smart of the FBI.”
He wouldn’t say where he thought the agency would go – but did say Metro has had discussions with the General Services Administration about how Metro would cooperate in the process.
When asked about a possible shut down of the Red Line because of the aging infrastructure and documented water problems there, Sarles said he expects a decision to be made this year.
“That is something we are still going through," he said. "For me, it is balancing customer convenience against getting the job done, and what makes the most sense.”
Sarles said the idea of new pedestrian tunnels under D.C.’s streets should be looked at, especially at places like Farragut North and Farragut West, as well as Gallery Place and Metro Center.
“We can relieve the load in that short segment in terms of trains and crushing people in with a simple pedestrian passageway. It’ll help people,” said Sarles.
The General Manager also called the almost finished Silver Line a game-changer for Northern Virginia.
“You’ll have two major business districts (now),” Sarles said, comparing the fast-changing Tysons Corner to downtown D.C.
And finally, when asked about his dealings with the press, social media and the intense spotlight on his transit agency, the General Manager said he has embraced it.
“I have come to appreciate the dialog. I actually enjoy it. It is my opportunity to talk to the customers through you,” he said.