Image by Beau Finley used with permission.

What was Metro like in its early years? I posed that question recently to Harry Barley, my former boss who worked at WMATA from 1974 to 1996 in a wide variety of roles. He was one of the planners the agency hired as it was constructing the Red Line.

Before he retired from a four-decade career in transportation, Barley agreed to an oral history-type interview about Metro in the 70s and 80s. It was a rare chance to gain insights into the decisions made then that are still having an impact on the region today.

Plenty has been published about Metro’s history – two excellent books include The Great Society Subway and The story of Metro – and GGWash has written several posts about Metro’s early days and myths. Our conversation confirmed reporting in several of these articles, including “Georgetown never blocked a Metro stop” and “Metro doesn’t have four tracks. That’s not why maintenance is a problem.”

But what I really wanted to know was what it was like to be in the thick of it all as Metrorail grew, and what others should know about that time period of the agency. Here are a few highlights from our conversation:

The mantra from the beginning: complete a 101-mile system

The original plan for Metrorail was to build 101 miles of rail service over five lines, and Barley said this focus inspired employees. There was “so much passion and so much commitment to that [101 mile system] mission,” he said. A powerful culture coalesced around that goal.

1970 Metro map. Image by District Department of Transportation.

Barley and his coworkers knew that “what was being done was so important.” After all, this was the first time that highway money had been redirected to build a rail line, and the stakes were high.

Unfortunately, in some ways that focus on 101 miles of rail came at the expense of bus service. Many of the region's bus routes were designed to ‘feed’ people to a rail station, which forces riders to transfer to reach their destination.

Metrobuses awaiting riders below a Red Line train at Rhode Island Avenue in 1984. Image by WMATA.

WMATA had a startup-like culture, offering rapid career growth

As arguably the fastest-growing transit agency in the 1970s and 80s, WMATA offered its employees the ability to rapidly rise up the career ladder. In his 22 years at WMATA, Harry held diverse roles ranging from a financial analyst for bus and rail operations, to an HR position overseeing employee grievances, to General Superintendent for Rail Operations, to Director of Marketing. That meant he got a multifaceted understanding of how the agency worked.

That may seem like a lot of widely-varied positions, but WMATA’s startup-like culture enabled this type of career growth that's uncommon in established agencies.

No one working there had much transit experience because it simply did not exist in the US at that time. But the training and leadership development opportunities enabled young employees to rapidly grow in their careers, and many of those people went on to bring that expertise to other transportation agencies across the country.

A construction worker rests at the Rhode Island Avenue station. Image by WMATA.

“People aren’t going to appreciate what we are doing here until there is another generation or two”

Jackson Graham, the first General Manager for WMATA, used to tell his staff these words of encouragement during tough times. Barley pointed out that this can be hard to fully understand in the moment, but now more than a generation later, it's hard to imagine downtown, Brookland, and U Street with I-95 running through them. Neighborhoods we have now are unlikely to exist, and we would have fewer homes, jobs, and stores.

Talking with Barley – and I think this would apply to anyone who works for a seasoned leader – was a good reminder that transformational projects often do not have a short-term effect. It's when you look back over multiple decades – or generations, as Graham said – that you see the impact.

An aerial view during Metrorail construction around Clarendon in 1974. Image by WMATA.

Barley also pointed out that Graham and his successors were all very different, and he says that's a good thing. Different types of leaders were needed for different points in the agency's life.

The work of WMATA’s early employees changed the Washington region and current residents' expectations about how we move around. Now most of them have retired or died, and that’s why it's so important to talk with those who are still around.

People like Harry Barley are among the few who can share rare tidbits about the system's history, and I have more to share. Stay tuned for future GGWash posts!

Elizabeth Whitton is a transit and health planner, whose passion for infrastructure began during her time as a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco. After several years as a Capitol Hill resident, she now lives in Florida.