Image by Thomas Hawk licensed under Creative Commons.

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority recently announced that Randy Clarke will become the agency’s next general manager. Clarke is in an unenviable position, as the Washington region’s beleaguered transit agency has as many (if not more) challenges as it did in 2015, when outgoing GM Paul Weidefeld took over.

Love it or hate it, WMATA’s bus and rail networks form a large part of the area’s transportation lifeline. The stakes are high, but there are steps Clarke can take to improve WMATA.

What the WMATA General Manager can (and can’t) do

As WMATA’s most public figure, it is easy to become disgruntled at the general manager for the agency’s failures, but Metro’s labyrinthine structure often obscures how the job works.

Principally, the GM has limited control over funding levels for the agency, as a substantial portion of WMATA’s funding comes from DC, Maryland, Virginia, and the federal government. Furthermore, these jurisdictions also appoint members of WMATA’s Board of Directors, who must sign off on things such as Metro’s budget.

Other entities that affect WMATA’s operations include the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission (WMSC) — which ordered the removal of 7000 series trains — the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 — the region’s largest transit union, and various regional transit providers such as RideOn, ART, DASH, The Bus, and the Fairfax Connector. Even the Metropolitan Washington Airport Authority, which financed and oversaw the principal construction of the Silver Line, has a say.

The GM does, however, impact WMATA’s operations, maintenance, budget, and a litany of other important functions. This means that organizations such as the WMSC may impact service when they flag a safety issue, but oftentimes it is WMATA’s own lack of leadership and organization mismanagement that most affect riders — as was the case earlier this week when a lack of operator training led to delays on the Green and Yellow Lines.

Keeping riders first

Transit agency leaders are often guilty of ‘elite projection.’ This means that, too often, they make decisions they see as most beneficial for people like themselves, rather than the ‘average’ rider. Incoming GM Randy Clarke has already taken an important, even symbolic, step here by promising to use WMATA himself (the same cannot always be said of WMATA Board Members and other local leaders).

In more practical terms, this means that enhancements such as adding USB chargers to stations are nice, but they don’t have nearly the same impact as reducing the cost penalty for bus to rail transfers for commuters on limited budgets.

Transit leaders, including the new GM, must also have a better understanding of what Metro ridership looks like. For many years, a large chunk of WMATA’s users were 9-5 office commuters; but as the pandemic transitioned people to remote work, these riders have largely disappeared.

This doesn’t mean people have stopped using transit, however. Many people such as essential workers continue commuting to work, often outside of normal rush hours. Many of them do not have cars, and ride hailing is cost prohibitive. Therefore, not riding public transit for two years has not been an option for them.

Evaluating WMATA’s ridership model

It’s too early to tell how many people will return to regular commutes to the office, but pandemic ridership trends have once again brought up a fundamental question of Metrorail’s design: should it primarily serve daily commuters, or function as rapid transit system with frequent service like the New York City Subway or Paris Metro? The system has long operated as a ‘hybrid model’ between these two types, but if going to the office every day falls out of favor, a rail system favoring the commuter model may no longer make sense.

If this is the case, a system with more consistent and frequent off-peak service could be the future, but it also creates challenges for the current design. All lines but the Red Line share tracks with another line, limiting maximum frequency and reliability. Metro has considered many plans to alleviate these problems, but as discussed above, the GM alone cannot implement these - especially as a fiscal cliff already looms on the horizon.

For both rail and bus, WMATA must also consider how it wishes to incentivize ridership. Lower fare costs, for instance, is good for equity, but shorter wait times help increase ridership.

All of these issues bring up tough questions without clear answers.

Improving WMATA’s image

WMATA has not always done the best job of promoting itself and could regain public trust if it did a better job of outreach. For instance, one pre-pandemic study showed Metrorail was often faster than Uber, but WMATA still managed to hemorrhage ridership through the end of the 2010s.

Furthermore, transit is incredibly safe in comparison to driving a private vehicle, but it’s hard to blame people who have avoided Metrorail in recent years given the agency’s spotty safety record. WMATA owes it to the public to improve reliability and safety, but it should also take a more hands-on approach to how people view transit. And — though it should go without saying — definitely don’t give out $21 credits to victims of derailed trains.

Safety, safety, safety

Of course, the best action for improving Metro’s image is backing it up with action. Problems such as the Rail Control Center’s toxic work environment festered for years, putting the public at risk. Despite an aggressive campaign to improve maintenance and reliability, Metrorail’s ongoing bumbling of the 7000-series railcar safety incidents has made trackwork-level headways the new normal.

WMATA must acknowledge that its safety problems are systemic, rather than just a few bad apples, and that change has to come from the top. Metro needs to move beyond a place where it is continually putting out fires (literally and figuratively), and effective leadership will be a major component of making that happen.

Across the country, transit agencies are in unknown territory following two years of COVID, and WMATA’s troubles run much longer than that. Hopefully General Manger Clarke can steady the ship and restore confidence and ridership in the region’s public transit system.

Disclosure: GGWash Board of Directors chair Tracy Hadden Loh is also on Metro’s board. In keeping with our editorial policy, board members maintain no oversight of editorial decision-making.

Stephen Hudson resides in Southwest DC — the fourth quadrant he has lived in. He works for a government relations firm and has previous experience with transportation policy at a trade association. His professional interests include transportation and infrastructure, foreign languages, and comparative international politics. The views expressed are his own.