New WMATA Chief Outlines Plans for DC Metro’s Future

New WMATA Chief Outlines Plans for DC Metro’s Future

March 11, 2016  | Emily Han

March 10, 2016

The National Press Club held a luncheon on March 7 featuring Paul Wiedefeld, the general manager of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) since last November. This event follows a public plan recently released by Wiedefeld, as well as an editorial in the Washington Post. While the discussion focused on WMATA’s myriad problems, he took a pragmatic tone, acknowledging that issues have not been communicated properly to the public.

The moderator, Thomas Burr, kicked off the event with a question on everyone’s mind: “How are you going to tackle and solve the problems?”

While the problems highlighted are familiar to WMATA riders, Wiedefeld adopted a broader perspective on these issues that included not only technical problems but also organizational considerations. For instance, he acknowledged that WMATA has historically had “a capital construction mentality” that focused on “newness” but not maintaining an aging system. Wiedefeld recognized that moving beyond this mentality is “a shift for the agency.” In another example, the decision to shutdown Metrorail during the January blizzard came down to conserving limited resources, especially electrical power. Wiedefeld “didn’t want to give the impression that it was safe to travel,” risk a power outage and marooning passengers. If an incident did occur, he explained that it would “[pull] resources away from…getting the system up and running.” In addition, the underground tunnels were used to store train cars, as part of the strategy to ensure the system would be ready to operate after the blizzard.

Even on an issue that would seem as simple as broken escalators, Wiedefeld would delve into the complexity behind them. For the escalators, Wiedefeld explained that a number of escalators are halted due to certain actions that would trigger them to stop as a safety precaution, which other escalators require replacing and rehabilitation. However, he acknowledged public perception: that “if an escalator is broken and it’s your escalator, they’re all broken.”

Wiedefeld took this broad approach to other larger policy issues. Burr highlighted Uber and Lyft as competing for riders, but Wiedefeld was careful to outline the aspects he has no control over (the price of fuel) and ones where he does (the overall transportation plan for the region).

Some of the recent or upcoming efforts that Wiedefeld touched upon included:

  • Passenger safety: This would entail additional police officers on the Metro platforms in addition to the station kiosk level in order to increase police visibility. There is also a “night watch” program, where police officers are patrolling during late night hours.
  • Community engagement: Metro police officers, operators, and station managers would visit schools and meet with students in order to help make the Metro employees more relatable.
  • Platform crowding: A new class of employees would be stationed on the platforms to handle crowding issues, working alongside the police.
  • Transparency: Most recently, WMATA has announced its Customer Accountability Report (CARe), which is intended to be an online platform where the public can track WMATA’s progress on its five-year plans. Wiedefeld also expressed no qualms about making certain information available to the public, such as Metro crimes and arrests, WMATA’s real estate transactions, and proposals for procurement bids.
  • Information delivery about transit times: Wiedefeld mentioned that WMATA is considering putting train times on the station columns at the street level. This would allow people to make trip-planning decisions before entering the platform.
  • No charge for immediately tapping in and out: WMATA is considering a grace period of 15 minutes where a passenger could tap into a station and immediately tap out if they decide to not wait for a train.
  • New organizational structure: Wiedefeld is forming a team that “is thinking strategically about the agency all the time,” while “tearing down” organizational silos to encourage the mentality that “either they act as a team or they’re not on the team.”

However, the discussion delved into neither WMATA’s unique multijurisdictional challenges nor the details of Wiedefeld’s fiscal management strategy. When Burr inquired about a proposed dedicated tax that has not been supported by Virginia and Marlyand, Wiedefeld responded about local versus regional governance, but did not in fact divulge how he would work with Virginia and Maryland to address funding concerns. Burr also repeatedly inquired about Wiedefeld’s strategy for fiscal management, with Wiedefeld only alluding to aligning expenditures with revenues, managing finances “more efficiently,” and acknowledging redundancies.

Burr pointed out to Wiedefeld, “Riders have seen [leaders] come before with promises and these promises sometimes take years, or never get done.” While Wiedefeld has shown a visible effort in communicating with the public since becoming general manager, it remains to be seen how these efforts and initiatives will come to fruition, and whether they address WMATA’s problems in the long term.

An archived video and transcript of the event can be found here.

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