Thursday, April 29, 2010

Sarles Quietly Takes Over at Metro

The new interim General Manager has been on the job for nearly a month. But you'd hardly know it as an average Metro customer. Richard Sarles took over for capable but embattled John Catoe on April 3rd of this year. Catoe wasn't so much ousted as he was ushered out --on his own terms-- by a very mediocre performance. He was dogged by elevator and escalator outages, explosive growth in system usage, safety mishaps, and of course the June 11 fatal Red Line accident, among other issues.

Sarles must feel a bit restricted; he is not likely a candidate for the permanent GM, but is tasked with overseeing daily operations as well as long term budget and capital planning for Metro at a critical juncture. He is now the driver on these important issues:

Rail to Dulles: We knew the good times wouldn't last. The on time delivery of Phase I of the Silver Line may be threatened by a dispute between Metro and the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which is overseeing the construction. If this dispute --over the price of rail cars-- goes on for an extended period, the entire schedule could be pushed back months or years.

Funding streams: None of Sarles predecessors solved this issue, so I don't think he will either. Metro needs dedicated funding. Maryland, Virgina and the District all need to codify yearly, dedicated funding for Metro in their respective budgets. Otherwise Metro will have to replan and readjust expectations and operations each year and won't be able to project with any real accuracy or precision.

Today's budget gap: forget about the future, what about now? Metro is facing a current budget shortfall of $189 million. How to correct for this? Really, the same ideas we've been hearing; increase in fares, cuts in services and restructuring internal departmental budgeting. In additional to eliminating some raises at Metro and asking MD, VA and DC for more money now.

Safety: This is huge. Additional training helps, but this is an institutional issue. It may require massive turnover for the entire agency to be on the same page regarding safely. Some of the newer ideas proposed by Metro are increased random drug testing of some workers, right of way training, fatigue management/prevention programs and more funding for suicide prevention (for riders, not workers).

Any changes approved by the Board would go into effect almost immediately, with new fares effective June 27th and other service changes and reductions being fulfilled by September of 2010. After public meetings, revisions to proposals and the general mood of transit in DC, I predict the following state of Metro in the second half of 2010.

New rush hour fares: Base rush hour fare will increase from $1.65 to $1.90. Currently we are paying a surcharge rate of $1.75, but that ends this summer. Maximum rush fare will increase to $5.00.

New base fare: Non rush hour base fare will increase from $1.35 to $1.55.

Parking: Fees are different in each lot, but all day parking at Metro lots will increase $.50 where ever you are. And reserved spaces will increase in price as well.

Internal Reductions: Metro is looking hard at cutting costs internally. You may never see the changes as a rider, but they have proposed massive cuts across departments totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars. This includes eliminating staff, including some whole offices, reducing the use of special consultants and outside legal counsel and deferring the hiring of various new employees.