Metro’s new general manager is optimistic that passengers will return

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Metro and transit systems across the country face a number of challenges in the coming years.

More than two years into the coronavirus pandemic, a shift toward remote working has eroded the number of riders using public transit. Fewer commuters means fewer fares, which translates into hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue for the Washington-area transit agency.

The pandemic, meanwhile, shows no sign of ending as looser return-to-office policies continue to limit in-person work, particularly in downtown DC. Meanwhile, Metrorail has operated a reduced schedule since October, when nearly 60 percent of its cars were withdrawn from service after a federal safety investigation uncovered a defect in 7000-series cars that caused wheels to move outward.

The agency’s funding stream for annual repairs, upgrades, and vehicle replacements is also set to increase to the maximum in the coming years.

Subway ridership is rising, but not enough to change financial projections

That’s the situation Metro’s next general manager, Randy Clarke, will find himself in this summer. After a nationwide search, Metro’s board of directors this week named Clarke, the chief executive of the Austin-based Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority, as its next general manager. He will replace Paul J. Wiedefeld, who is retiring on June 30 after six years at the helm of the agency.

Clarke, 45, who has served in various transportation-related roles for more than two decades – including at the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority in Boston and the American Public Transportation Association – spoke to the Washington Post about his reasons for taking the job and his plans to get Metro back on track. The interview has been edited slightly for length and clarity.

Metro is hiring a new general manager amid pandemic and safety concerns

Q: Metro has seen an overall surge in ridership recently, but Metrorail continues to lag behind, operating 35 percent of the daily passenger trips it did before the pandemic. How do you get people back on the metro, or should the transit company focus on what’s working with Metrobus, which has regained 88 percent of its pre-pandemic ridership?

A: All modes are critical and all clients are critical. I take care of the bus customer as well as the train customer. They are all really important and bring different types of value to the community at different times of the day or on different days of the week. I’m long-term optimistic about transit. Are we clearly in a downtrend right now? Of course we are coming out of a pandemic. The economy has been going up and down more than we all like lately. There is a lot of uncertainty and fear. Another Covid wave may be coming.

According to Metro, the number of passengers exceeds the forecasts of the transport company

All of this will work out. We need to come together as a region and think long-term, [review] Metro’s business model. There may be an opportunity to attract more transit users at night. As an activity hub, DC is special. Think of the millions of people who come here every year. There shouldn’t be any visitor who comes here who stays at the core who ever rents a car. You should be on the [transit] Service that runs all its activities. They have big development in places like Tysons and all along the Silver Line alignment and in that area. You have Nats Park and the Caps.

There are all these opportunities throughout the day for people to use public transport and for that we need a safe, reliable and frequent service. I look forward to working with the partners and stakeholders and hearing from customers on how we might be able to rebalance the network. The whole thing does not have to be rethought. Public transport is the link between opportunities, and nothing is the workhorse of a good city like public transport.

Q: With teleworking becoming more prevalent, what’s a selling point for Metro? How exactly do you bring people back to Metrorail?

A: First of all, I think there are a lot of people at Metro. I think the bigger question is how do we get more people back on the metro. Most people, I’m sure, want to be sure it’s safe, reliable, and frequent. If the 7000 series were back today, I’m personally convinced – and I’m not under the hood here – but ridership would be significantly higher than today because the frequency would be so much higher. If the Silver Line Phase Two was already up and running, more people would be taking it.

You go out [Interstate] 66 at about 4pm, and it’s just a line of cabs and Ubers. From what I understand the traffic in the DC area is pretty terrible again. Gas prices are at their highest level ever and I don’t think that will change for a while. Driving obviously has a big environmental impact. People want to take the train line.

I think Metro is doing a lot of things right and we need to step in and see what we can focus on to improve things. Good condition translates into good reliability and safety, and more and more people will win that back. People want frequency and they want to know they are safe. We need to get people back into the transit system because when the system works well, the whole region works well.

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Q: How can you capitalize on growing bus driver populations and improve bus service reliability and frequency?

A: One of the most important things that I’m really looking forward to working with our partners on is right of way. The jurisdiction partners have the right of way, and I concede [the D.C. Department of Transportation] now much credit. I’m not in the mix but it’s clear they’re doing a lot of stuff.

[Bus priority lanes] are the types of improvements we need to work with all jurisdictions to consider: how do we move these buses safely and quickly to get so many people on board and provide the best possible service to those customers? And if we can do that, your bus and train connections at the train stations will be better. The whole system improves.

After proving its worth during the pandemic, momentum is building for free or discounted transit

Q: Many leaders say transit is a public service and should be fully funded or made free for users. Several cities including Kansas City and Alexandria, went free of charge. What do you think of these ideas?

A: Transport is a public good. You can’t have a great city or region without a great public transport system. It’s just impossible. Every major city in the world has a well-functioning public transport system. So fares are a complicated element.

We have funded transit in a unique way in America, and this discussion of the proper way to fund transit is evolving in America. After all, someone has to pay for a public good, be it a fire department, a school or a public transport company. These services have to be funded. So the community needs to come together and decide how to use their money to fund the services they care about.

In Austin, we were able to hold a referendum and people actually imposed a property tax on themselves during a pandemic because they cared so much about building a much larger transit system for the future of their community – the fastest growing city in the country. In this community, we need to come together as a region and think about how we want this region to function – not only in terms of mobility, but also in terms of social justice, public safety, transport, the environment, you name it. And transit has to play a key role in all of these discussions.

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