Photo by tracktwentynine on Flickr.
Governor O’Malley sort-of-confirmed this morning that the WMATA Board is planning to keep on Richard Sarles as permanent General Manager/CEO. While Sarles isn’t what WMATA needs in the long run and might not tackle the bigger, long-term problems, but he could be a good source of stability as WMATA extricates itself from its immediate crises.
Both the Riders’ Advisory Council and Board of Trade recommended making the General Manager role more of a CEO. The CEO should be the public face of WMATA, and develop a clear vision plan for getting the agency where it needs to be with issues like funding, labor relations, and more. The CEO should publicly advocate for his vision and engage with stakeholders directly and through the press.
Long-term, Metro needs some serious changes. The administrative structure is very ossified, departments work in silos and don’t communicate enough, and really talented change agents have little ability to accomplish great things. Too many good people end up just leaving for other kinds of jobs.
Sarles hasn’t been that kind of strong and visible leader, and as interim GM, he hasn’t tackled the big problems. He’s been quiet, but has built up better relations with local officials and bodies like the NTSB. That’s something Metro really needs. He’s launched a good “vital signs” report to track progress, and set up a very specific checklist of issues he would tackle this year.
On the other hand, other than not having any crashes, he hasn’t done much (or at least not much yet) to improve customer service, WMATA’s notoriously poor relationship with the press or its secretive culture, or really engaged with riders or the public at all. His defense of a wrong-headed bag search program based on no data whatsoever is disappointing.
For another year or two, maybe what WMATA needs most is just for everything to be really stable. Many Board seats are turning over, which will bring in some great new blood but also lose some institutional memory. That could make this a relatively bad time to also bring in a brand-new GM.
In other words, if Sarles’ leadership has been positive for one year, why not keep it going for another year or two?
The big question, once he doesn’t have an immediate end date, is whether he will start to deal with these longer-term issues. WMATA needs to lead on bringing jurisdictional partners together to find some more sustainable revenue sources. The Board and GM/CEO need to attack the organizational culture.
There aren’t many reasons to believe this will suddenly happen. His approach to safety has been too reactive and short-term, which has made the NTSB happy but leaves some issues unsolved. Devoting all resources to safety has also taken all money away from upgrading the infrastructure to handle more 8-car trains. Without that, Metro is already nearly at capacity on some lines, and overcrowding on platforms can cause its own safety problems.
Will we be dealing with other safety threats in a few years and look back baffled as to why the leadership of today didn’t tackle them, just as people reacted to John Catoe not having done anything about failing track signals?
Perhaps fortunately, Sarles is not going to be GM for a long time. He was already at retirement when he came on board. He’ll probably only stay for a few more years.
Rather than thinking of him as permanent General Manager, I’m going to consider him the longer-term interim GM, but not the CEO many have called for. An interim GM like him could be just what WMATA needs for a couple of years. However, the Board shouldn’t completely stop thinking about how to find the real CEO who will truly lead WMATA where it has to go. In a couple of years, that’ll again be their task.