This special edition of the Politics Hour combined local and national politics live from Slim's Diner in Petworth, Northwest D.C.
Many long-anticipated changes are coming to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. Streetcars are expected to begin service on H Street NE and the Silver Line is slated to start running to Reston and Tyson’s Corner. New fare cards and rail cars are also in the works systemwide. But many old problems and concerns about on-time performance, maintenance and safety remain. Kojo and WAMU 88.5 reporter Martin DiCaro talk with Metro General Manager Richard Sarles about where the system is headed.
- Martin Di Caro Transportation Reporter, WAMU
- Richard Sarles General Manager and Chief Executive Officer, Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA)
Metro General Manager Richard Sarles explains why WMATA doesn’t use the transportation industry’s standard for measuring on-time performance. Sarles said WMATA compares measurements against their own internal numbers, rather than industry numbers, to check improvement. “The standard we use was here before I got here,” Sarles said.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. This morning brought a rainbow of delays for Metro rail customers, likely causing blood pressure spikes before many commuters even left their houses. Listeners to this station heard about it from Matt Bush during "Morning Edition."
MR. MATT BUSHProblems on three of Metro's five lines this morning. On the Green Line, we have separate delays causing problems. There's an earlier problem at the Fort Totten Station that had been causing delays. And now on the Green Line, trains are single-tracking between the U Street and Georgia Avenue stations because of a disabled train at Columbia Heights. Earlier, single-tracking on the Blue and Orange Lines this morning has ended because of a problem at the Rosslyn Station. But there are still some residual delays on both the Blue and Orange Lines this morning.
NNAMDIMatt Bush, he left out the Red Line in that 8:30 report where earlier delays had been resolved but where residual effects were still being felt, leaving plenty of customers steaming on frigid platforms, all of which makes our first question for today's guest pretty obvious. He joins us in studio. Richard Sarles, he's the general manager and chief executive officer of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. Thank you so much for joining us.
MR. RICHARD SARLESIt's good to be back, Kojo.
NNAMDIAlso in studio with us is Martin Di Caro. He is WAMU 88.5's transportation reporter. Martin, thank you for joining us.
MR. MARTIN DI CAROOf course, Kojo. Good to be back.
NNAMDIYou, too, can join the conversation. Give us a call at 800-433-8850. Or send email to email@example.com. You can send us a tweet, @kojoshow. Are you a regular Metro rider? Call us with your opinion of the service. Richard Sarles, in November, serious delays that doubled and tripled some commute times on the Red Line prompted an apology from you, which brings me to this morning.
NNAMDISo -- well, I was about to say what happened this morning. But allow me to read an email we got from @fixmetro, "How about you ask, investigate, question, and relay instead of screening and sucking up?" OK. Here we go.
NNAMDI"This morning, during rush hour, there were delays on every line except the Yellow Line. A disabled train at Rosslyn caused Blue-Orange Line delays. Green was experiencing delays due to a disabled train at Columbia Heights. And Red Line had a malfunctioning train at Rhode Island. What's wrong with you people?" Yes, your turn.
SARLESWell, today there were delays with the airlines and flights. There are delays in the roads, and there was even delays in school. It's due to the weather. And the Metro is not immune to the weather, especially very frigid days like today. Today and some other of the deep freeze days, we've had issues with the rolling stock equipment on some of the trains which cause the delays.
SARLESIt's very unfortunate. The customers -- I got caught in one delay last week myself as I stood on the platform for 20 minutes. One of the things I'll be very happy with is when the 7000-series cars start getting delivered the end of this year and we start replacing the oldest cars in the fleet. I'm sure that'll partially help with this problem.
CARODid you take Metro to the station today? I was worried about the Red Line across the street.
SARLESYes, I did. Yes, I did.
SARLESAnd we had no problems at all.
NNAMDIYou have just answered a tweet from Tim. "Is Sarles taking the Metro to get to you guys? If not, why not?" Well, Tim, apparently he did.
CAROWell, yeah. And then Mr. Sarles was stuck on the Pentagon City platform, I think it was, last week. There's more to this though than cold weather. Obviously, the weather does affect Metro more than maybe other transit agencies 'cause you have a lot of exposed track. There was a broken rail last week that may have had to do with the cold. But there's more of this than cold weather. We're dealing with very old equipment that's only slowly being replaced.
SARLESAnd that's why I said I'd be very happy when the 7000-series cars come in to replace the 1000-series, the 4000-series. And of course we'll get additional cars for the Silver Line.
CAROBut I think what riders are frustrated with -- and this isn't necessarily your fault. You inherited a transit system that had been neglected for a long time -- is how much longer till they see substantial change with on-time performance and with some of these day-to-day snags that just make people so miserable in the morning.
CAROI know you've said that your on-time performance for Boston rail has gotten better. And I think we're going to get into some of those metrics a little bit later on. But the rebuilding program still has three more years through 2017, and it's going to take five years to roll out the first complement of 7000-series railcars. I think the old 1000-series is going to be on the tracks for another couple years. So it sounds like the best answer we have for folks right now is that they have to just be patient, right?
SARLESWell, I don't like to ask people to be patient. They deserve to have a system that works every day. We have made a lot of improvements over the last three, four years. Everyone notices the rebuilding that's going on, escalators being replaced. The on-time performance has improved. It was around 88 percent about three years ago, running generally around 91 percent.
SARLESThis month is not going to be as good with some of the deep freezes we had. Nor was November's good. But generally we're running with higher on-time performance, both on bus and rail. And it's due to a lot of the work that's been done on the tracks and the signals to help improve things, as well as fixes on the rail stock.
CAROShould Metro shut down entire rail lines to speed up the rehabilitation program?
SARLESWell, as a customer, do you want to see it shut down for a long period of time?
CAROIt would need a robust bus service to replace it, no doubt. But you would get the rehabilitation work done potentially much faster.
SARLESWell, think about this...
CAROOther cities have done it. That's why I'm asking.
SARLESThink about -- well, they do do that in some cities, but also, you'll find that generally there's a rail line nearby that can partially offload and help that. We don't have that same situation for most of the Washington Metro. The place where we have the most problems and the most reconstruction needed is on the Red Line, up around Medical Center where the geology causes a lot more water to enter the system.
SARLESWe're looking at how we can have a permanent fix to that. We have yet to come to a conclusion. But one of the things we look at is that tradeoff that you're talking about. And that's really the last thing I want to do is to shut down the system. One train carries 1,000 people. That's a lot of buses just to replace that one train.
NNAMDIYou have said that many of the problems Metro is facing now are the result of deferred maintenance in the past. Can you talk about the steps that you and your staff are taking today to avoid similar troubles in the future? And, more specifically, what is momentum?
SARLESWell, the steps we've taken over the last few years is really to double -- more than double the investment in the system. There was less than $400 million being spent on reconstructing the system in 2010. Now we're up over $900 million a year. We've -- so you've seen a great increase. And people have seen that. And they're beginning to see the results of that. Sometimes you notice that the escalators are now working in places like Dupont Circle. The lights in the station are brighter, such as Judiciary Square, Gallery Place. You see that coming along.
SARLESMomentum is a strategic plan that the board has adopted that not only says that we still have to keep safety first, still have to work on the state of good repair of the system so that it's much more reliable operation, but also has to look to the future when the growth in population and the growth in employment in this region will cause greater demands in this system so that if you think the Orange Line is crowded today in the rush hour, it'll be much worse so by the end of this decade. So investments have to be made to deal with that.
NNAMDIOur guest is Richard Sarles in case you're just joining us. He's the general manager and chief executive officer of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. Our resident analyst on transportation issues at WAMU 88.5 is Martin Di Caro. He is WAMU 88.5's transportation reporter. He joins us in studio. You can join the conversation yourself by calling 800-433-8850 or sending email to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can shoot us a tweet, @kojoshow. Martin.
CAROWell, Kojo, Mr. Sarles was just discussing the ambitious long-term plans that Metro has, and they are necessary. And Metro's absolutely critical to the future of the region, no doubt about that. But to return to some of these day-to-day problems and why, I think, it's relevant -- one more question before I make another point discussing about shutting down entire lines for months at a time to speed up the rehab work.
CAROWhat about shutting down entire lines just for a full weekend? I mean, this weekend there are going to be 24-minute headways on some of the lines. Is that even worth running service at that deep a interval?
SARLESAs a person who rides the system on weekends...
CAROAs I do. I do, too.
SARLESAnd I realize that what I do is I treat it more like a commuter railroad. I can look at my BlackBerry, see when the next train's arriving. And if I'm in a restaurant or up in my apartment, I know when to get down to the platform and catch that train. And I know that the -- now that we've scheduled, that train will not have to stop and be delayed at points along the railroad because we've worked out the schedule so that, once you get on the train, you should see no further delays.
NNAMDIAllow me to go to Tony in Arlington who wants to talk about the weekends. Tony, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
TONYHey, Kojo, great to talk to you again. Yeah. I'm the inventor guy out here. Anyway, yeah, I've been a rail fan since I was 4 years old -- rail fanatic is more like it, starting (unintelligible) 16. Then I switched over to transit -- traction and transit.
TONYWhat I'd like to suggest is on the weekends, especially in the evenings, when you get all the drunks pouring out of the bars and they have to sit -- you know, you have to hang on the platform for 20 minutes. Why not split the 8-car trains into 2-car trains and run them every five minutes? And the other thing is I think I have worked out a very quick fix for putting LEDs with the seats so people could read.
NNAMDIOK. Let's deal with one question at a time. The first question, every five minutes.
SARLESWell, the reason we're running every 24 minutes is that, somewhere along the railroad, we're doing work on one of the two tracks so that track is shut down. We -- in order to traverse from one point to another, you need a time gap. And in this case, it's 24 minutes to get a train through, so that the next train coming down the track in the opposite direction can go through smoothly.
SARLESIf you're running every five minutes, that would be impossible to do. I -- you mentioned drunks, and I want to talk about that. In fact, I remember, Kojo, the first show I was on with you, it was looked at -- Washington Metro's looked at as a great place for people to drink too much to get on Metro rather than driving. And at that time, I said, that's not good idea.
SARLESAnd I just want to reiterate to people, because we've seen over the last year, two people die on Washington Metro because they were heavily intoxicated, and they fell over off the platforms and were killed in the fall. So I would ask people for safety reasons if you really are too drunk to walk, you should call a friend or catch a cab.
CAROMetro rail riders have dropped a little bit last year, had gone...
CARO...up quite a bit for a while. Then it did take a one-year drop, and there were many reasons for that. There was unanticipated days where there would be no people taking the train. I think there was a unexpected Christmas Eve holiday. We've recently had some bad weather that snagged -- you know, actually the federal government was shut down. So all that eats into ridership and eats into the bottom line a little bit. But what's harder to quantify is rider frustration.
CAROAnd the reason why I brought up the questions about the length of time it's taking to rehab the system and whether or not shutting down stations for longer periods would speed that up is 'cause by the time 2017 gets around, we're going to have a solid 5, 6 years of rehab work and a lot of frustration on the part of riders dealing with it, the single-tracking and all the weekend long headways. Can people be confident that once the rehab -- major rehab, the capital work is done in 2017 that these day-to-day problems are going to be gone?
SARLESWell, there's two things that you mentioned. One is the reason for a decrease -- slight decrease in ridership. One that you missed out on was the fact that Congress...
CAROFederal Transit Benefit.
SARLES...decided not to extend the Federal Transit Benefit, and then they extended it. And now we're back in another case were they've significantly reduced it, especially versus the benefit for parking. That causes a problem. People become much more sensitive to the fares when you take away a benefit, and they can't even plan on the benefit. So I think that's important consideration here.
CAROAnd that's fair. That is a big factor.
CAROBut, Kojo, if you don't mind just getting back to the question...
CARO...was, you know, by 2017, are some of these problems -- and by then we're going to have another -- at least a couple more fare increases at that point, which also leads to a small drop in ridership as well. Can people be confident that when this is over in 2017 -- of course, there's going to ongoing maintenance -- that these day-to-day snags will be gone?
SARLESThere's never perfection, however, there -- and you see it already. There's less time taken for maintenance and reconstruction now. We no longer take tracks out in the middle of the day for scheduled maintenance. We no longer have early outs at night, going out at 8:00 o'clock and starting work. We now just do it at 10:00 or later.
SARLESOn the weekends we're not taking those holiday weekends when some people work and some people don't. So you're seeing progress already. What you will see three years from now is, yes, there will still be work done on some weekends. There still will be work done late at night, but it'll be much more of the routine maintenance work and the routine reconstruction, rather than the catch-up that we've been doing for the last three or four years.
NNAMDIHere is Andrew, in Washington, D.C. Andrew, your turn.
ANDREWHi. Thank you, Kojo. Mr. Sarles, I've called in and talked to you before. I am a person who relies heavily on both bus and rail, and on the weekends. I see that the need for your maintenance is there, but what you're doing is really cruel and unkind to us riders. You have us wait up to 20, 24 minutes for train. You run two or three trains at a time one way. And then finally we get the trains going the other way. I suggested to you last time that you run a shuttle, one train back and forth in the affected area and riders can get off that train at the next platform where they're going where the service goes two ways and go where they need to go.
ANDREWBut to run the way you're doing it now is killing us and it's not fair. So please, a shuttle between the affected stations. Your shuttle bus service has been great. Thank you for that.
NNAMDITo which you say what, Richard Sarles?
SARLESWell, what we are doing is, as I mentioned earlier, we have gotten away from the old way of single-tracking, which is what you just said, of sending three trains through and then holding trains and sending three trains through in the other direction. We've laid at the intervals so that you should not have to be sitting, waiting to get through a single track section. That's why trains are operating every 24 minutes. Sometimes, on the Red Line this weekend, for instance, it's 24 minutes from one end to the other, but on the more interior part of it it's every 12 minutes to give people more service.
NNAMDIWe got a tweet from Kelly, who said, "With all the time spent waiting, is there any plan to improve Wi-Fi or let people plug in in stations?
SARLESWell, today you pretty much can use your cell phones in the stations. As people have probably noticed, it's in between stations that's an issue. In terms of Wi-Fi, yes. We are working on that. And I can't announce when we'll have that done, but in the future you should see Wi-Fi eventually.
CAROKojo, can we talk again about headways and Metro…
NNAMDIHold a thought for a second.
CAROOh, hold it. I am holding.
NNAMDIBecause first we have to take a short break. When we come back we'll continue the conversation with Richard Sarles, general manager of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority and Martin Di Caro, WAMU 88.5's transportation reporter. If you have called 800-433-8850, hang on. We'll get to your calls. If the lines are busy shoot us an email to email@example.com or a tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest is Richard Sarles. He is the general manager of the WMATA, Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. Also in studio with us is Martin Di Caro, WAMU 88.5's transportation reporter. You can call us at 800-433-8850. Have you stopped or started using Metro services recently? You can also go to our website, kojoshow.org, ask a question or make a comment there. We got a tweet from Atlow Hadwigs (sp?) "Why is the 100 percent eight-car train, Goal, only intended for rush hours and not all day service?"
SARLESWell, it's a matter of how you want to spend your money. In the rush hours we need all eight-car trains in order to carry people and accommodate growth and stimulate regional economic growth. If we ran all eight-car trains all day long and at the same frequencies, we'd be having a lot of empty trains. I see no reason that during off-peak hours, especially when new trains are operating, there will still be eight-car trains. They just won't be as frequent. That's all.
CAROThe Metropolitan Washington Council of Government says it is absolutely essential that Metro has 100 percent eight-car trains by 2025. Their forecasting is that just every major line, every line on the Metro will be heavily congested or at least somewhat congested if that does not happen. Is it realistic to think we'll have 100 percent eight-car trains in -- what is it now -- 11 years?
SARLESYes, it is. And there's two reasons I say that. First is, we have a order now -- a contract now to order trains, as you know. There's an option that expires on August of 2015. If we exercise that option, by that date we will have 220 more cars ordered, which will go a long way towards giving us eight-car trains. If we miss that date that could delay everything by five years. And the only thing that influences that is providing enough funding from the jurisdictions in order to support that.
CAROIn -- when you've responded today and in the past about problems with Metro service on a day-to-day basis, you have said that performance is improving and that the people have seen that. But there are different ways to measure on-time performance. Let's talk about Metro bus. As you know, the Mineta National Transit Research Consortium, Norman Mineta, the former DOT secretary, now head of that group -- did study using what they say is the industry standard for bus on-time performance. It's either one minute early to five minutes late. That means that a bus is on time.
CAROMetro's standard is between two minutes early and seven minutes late. So when you look at the industry standard, the on-time bus performance is not as strong as Metro would say it is using your own metric. Why don't you use the industry standard there?
SARLESWell, the standard we use was here before I got here. And what I'm comparing is how we're doing against our own measurement. And when you look at how we were doing three or four years ago, in terms of on-time performance bus and look at today, we have improved. If you switch the way you measure it, in, you know, in midstream, then you've lost the ability to measure your progress. At some point, when we get to the area where I think we've made really good progress in on-time performance and we've hit a new plateau, then that might be a time for the board to consider changing the metrics.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Josh in Adams Morgan concerning busses. "If bus lines, like the S Busses on 16th Street and the 42 are always full day and night, even at 11:00 p.m. or midnight, why can't you run more frequent busses? Aren't you making very good money on those standing-room only busses, enough to double the frequency of these very successful -- almost too successful -- bus lines?"
SARLESBus fares only pay about 25 to 30 percent of the cost of running busses, however, the answer to the question with regard to running more busses is contained in Momentum, our strategic plan. We want to run more busses. We want to provide better service. It requires funding for more busses from the jurisdictions in order to do that.
CAROThat is actually an excellent subject that the -- was that a caller or a tweeter? What do we call that?
CAROThe S Bus is becoming a bigger issue. I've done reporting on this. You did add extra rush hour service. The problem isn't the bus service, it's the growing population in the 16th Street Corridor, which is the busiest bus corridor in the city. The problem isn't necessarily the metrics and the on-time metrics. It's crowding of busses, meaning one bus after another shows up, after a long delay without any busses. Part of that problem is traffic on 16th Street. What we need, in my view, is a dedicated bus line on 16th Street. And I know that Metro right now is in the process of a pilot program to test that out; is that correct? If not there, than in other parts of the District.
SARLESA number of places in the region, including that area. We need to give priority treatment to busses. That is something that we work with the jurisdictions with because, after all, they're the ones that control the traffic lights, whether or not a lane should be made available to a bus. If they are able to do that, we will run the busses.
NNAMDIUnless you have another question on busses?
CAROYeah, I do. I just want to stay on the 16th Street or any crowded bus corridor for one more question. You're right. It's a traffic issue, traffic lights, traffic signal prioritization. There's also technology that's available so a bus can kind of sense what's coming up and a green light. This is something that should have been done a long time ago. This is not your fault. This is just the way we view our cities and makeup of the streets and who has entitlement to how much street space. But where is this in your list of priorities, as far as working with DDOT to get this done sooner rather than later, so in five years we're still not talking about crowded busses on 16th Street.
SARLESWe work with all the jurisdictions on this. In fact, in Arlington County and Alexandria we've been successful. I mean they've led the way and we're going to have an exclusive transit way for busses coming very soon. We look forward to the same thing in the District. It requires the District to be able to make those choices and also provide the funding to allow for that to happen. We'd love to see it happen.
NNAMDIOnto fares. Starting this evening, Metro is hosting a series of public hearings in D.C., Maryland and Virginia, service cuts are not on the agenda, but fare increases are. The fare table is already quite complicated and rides can sometimes be pricey. Are they about to become more so and where does that money go?
SARLESWell, in terms of the money, it goes to operations. About 55 percent of the costs of operating Metro comes from the fare box and other things like parking fees. So, you know, that's where that is. I forgot the second question.
NNAMDIAre fares about to become more pricey?
SARLESCertainly we are looking to increase fares, but very modestly so. As one of our principles we try to increase in line with inflation. We have not had an increase in two years. The proposal out there is about around where inflation has been over the last couple of years with regard to rail. And with regard to bus, we're talking about a 15 cent increase to $1.75. And I have proposed to the board that in order to simplify things, we get rid of the separate cash fare on the busses.
NNAMDIHere now is Collin, in Washington, D.C. Collin, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
COLLINThanks, Kojo. So I come in every morning from Alexandria, Va. on the Blue Line, which is a pretty lengthy and not a cheap trip. And, you know, especially I pay quite a bit more compared to other riders on other lines relative to the service I receive. So when there are frequent rush-hour delays they're a major concern to me because they make my day longer. So my question is, you know, why do riders have to continue to pay peak fares during major delays, during rush hour? What recourse is available to protect riders when we don't receive the service that we pay for?
NNAMDIYour turn, Richard Sarles.
SARLESWell, when it's an extraordinary delays we do take that into consideration on a case-by-case basis.
NNAMDIWell, Laura, in Alexandria, Va., has what may be a solution. She says, "The commuter on Metro has been so spotty and inconsistent during crunch times lately that I think it appropriate that Metro should offer a goodwill gesture to customers, just as any retailer worth its salt would offer refunds, vouchers or exchanges for a shoddy product, I think Metro should offer a free day -- metro should offer a day of free service during rush hour. Would Mr. Sarles consider that for this spring?"
SARLESNo. Remember that Washington Metro does not make a profit. It is supported by the taxpayers.
CARONo transportation in the country…
SARLESGenerally not. So what you're asking is the taxpayers to pay for that. I would say that when we look at our surveys of what customers think of Metro service, about 80 to 85 percent of them find it satisfactory.
CAROThis issue though, of what is an extraordinary delay or an extraordinary day, I think that's where some riders grow frustrated and feel that maybe you're not connecting with them on that level. Today, in my view, it was fairly extraordinary. There were problems on -- or maybe it's becoming too ordinary -- there were problems on four out of the five lines. Last week there was a day all five lines had a problem. And then the following day I think it was four out of five and you were caught on the Pentagon City platform, freezing with everybody else out there. Not to beat a dead horse, but I think that's where there's some disconnect here.
CARORiders here you cite a statistic from a poll, your internal polling. I think the Washington Post did one, too. But they're not seeing it enough on a day-to-day basis.
SARLESWell, again, the numbers speak for themselves. And I agree. I stood on the Pentagon City platform for 20 minutes and waited. It was inconvenient. But myself, along with the other passengers, they got the train service straightened out. That was a broken rail. And we resumed operations and I got to work.
CAROOn the fare increase -- thank you, Kojo. On the fare increase, as a long-time radio reporter I do many what we call in the business MOS or man-on-the-street interviews. And I go out on the platforms and I talk to folks, well what do you think of the proposed fare hike? And they say, "Well, I would support it as long as the money goes toward fixing what needs to be fixed." Now, most of the fare increase will go towards operations. There is some maintenance money in there, but it goes towards operations. And operations is people. Fifteen percent of your operating budget is for your pension costs. Is that too much and what can be done about it?
SARLESWell, in the most recent collective bargaining agreement, we reached an agreement with our workers that they would contribute to the pension. So that was a step in order to, you know, maintain pension costs at a more reasonable level. I will say, though, when people are asked, well, what I'm getting for this?
SARLESThey should look around. A few years ago when I was on the station I was talking more about promising what was coming. Now, people can see the new escalators. Now, people can see the rehabilitated escalators. Now, people can see that there's new cars being tested out in a line. They can see new lighting in stations and more of that is to come.
CAROGo ahead, Kojo.
NNAMDISince you were on the business of escalators, we had a call who wanted to talk about a specific escalator someplace, but I can't find it right now. So we're going to move on. Earlier this month, Metro announced that it awarded a $184 million contract to a tech firm to overhaul the fare card system. Why now and what kind of changes can riders expect moving forward?
SARLESWell, like many other things on the Washington Metro, the fare system is very old here. And we're talking about the fare gates themselves, the software that backs it up. It's been modified many times. We're using smart trip cards, but as people are seeing coming into the smart phones and pockets, you know, it'll be credit cards with chips in them, there's an opportunity here -- like everything else, it has to be replaced at some point -- let's replace it with a 21st century system.
SARLESAnd that's what we award a contract for, so that in the future there will be no paper fare cards. You don't even have to worry about having a smart trip card. You could be -- if you're a federal worker, your ID card with a chip in it, you can use that, you can use your smart phone if you're a tourist.
NNAMDIWell, before we go, Jim, in Washington, D.C., has a specific suggestion about that. Jim, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JIMYeah, good morning. I hate to beat this poor man up. I just had a couple of questions. I was just in Athens, Greece, riding their metro system. And when you go in to get on a train in their metro system you show your card, it reads it and you get on. When you get off, however, you just walk off the train and walk out of the station. And that keeps people from being backed up during rush hours trying to get out of the station. Why can't we have a system like that, where you just have to show your card when you get on the metro train, but not have to show it when you get off?
SARLESWell, we have a time and distance based fare system. And frankly, it's been so long since I've been in the Athens system, I can't remember what they have there. But because we have a time and distance fare system, we have to know when you get on and how far you went and where you got off. And that's why it's in an app. But with the new fare gates it should be a little faster.
CAROI think this open payment system is a great idea. I, myself, am tired of having to make my American currency into smart trip currency. I don't put a lot of money on my card because I'm always worried I might lose it or it'll break. And I don't register it online either, to me, that's a hassle. However, I do have a couple questions about the introduction of this system. Actually, I have three questions. I'll make them brief. The contractor you chose -- the name escapes me off the top of my head -- had problems in Ontario Province and also in Toronto with deadlines, going over budget. Was that a factor when it was chosen?
SARLESWe certainly look at all the vendors that proposed. By the way, you should register your card to prevent losses. We look at all the vendors that propose and certainly experience is one of them. And we compare the relative merits and costs of each proposal and we chose what was in the best interest of the Metro.
NNAMDIAccenture is the name of the…
CAROIs Metro protected if Accenture screws up here like it did in Canada?
SARLESWell, one of the interesting things here is in this contract, unlike other contracts, they have to put the pilot system in and show us it works before we pay them a single cent.
CAROHow is Metro going to choose the people, like me, who use the system every day, that are going to be able to take part in the pilot program on the busses and in certain rail stations?
SARLESYou know, I'll have to find out. I don't know the answer to that off the top of my head.
CAROAnd when I spoke to your…
SARLESAre you volunteering?
NNAMDII was about to suggest it.
CARONo. I'm not going to be a guinea pig for this one. But when I spoke to your official the day after that this was announced, she had said, at that point, that a decision hadn't been made yet. Also, but you know, most people's credit cards, like my Visa check card in my wallet right now don't have that chip that's necessary to just tap and go when they're going through the system. A matter of fact, almost -- very few credit cards have that. Is that a concern at all?
SARLESWell, you may want to read an article, I was in the Wall Street Journal over the last few days, which I talked about the new standards that are being put in that will probably significantly encourage people, I should say, the credit card companies to have chips in their cards by, I think, 2016.
NNAMDIHere is, speaking of the aforementioned broken escalator call, Mary in Arlington, VA. Mary, you're on the air. Thank you for waiting.
MARYThank you. I am a frequent Metro rider. I live in Arlington, VA and I am calling specifically about the reliability of your escalator repairs. I remember quite sometime ago one of your priorities was to fix the escalators on the Foggy Bottom Metro station, I guess that was one of your earliest works. Well, last week I was in Washington several times and I got off at Foggy Bottom only to find that the escalators from the train level up to the fair gates wasn't working both ways.
MARYI was there again yesterday going to the Kennedy Center. And when I came in, they weren't working. When I came -- was coming down, again, it wasn't working. So what's the reliability of the fair work -- of the repair work that you're doing?
SARLESTwo things. At Foggy Bottom we replaced the escalators, as I recall, that go up to the street level. They are much better operation than the others. In terms of the overall, what we've seen on the availability of escalators. It's gone from mid-80 percent level over a system wide to the low 90 percent level. That still doesn't take away the inconvenience when you run into one. I do myself, one not operating. But I will be talking to our folks after this broadcast about Foggy Bottom.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, if you have called, stay on the line. The number is 800-433-8850. If you have questions or comments for Richard Sarles, general manager of Metro, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. Also in studio with us is Martin Di Caro, WAMU 88.5's transportation reporter. You can also send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. How do you think Metro service reflects on the city? Or send us a tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest is Richard Sarles. He's general manager and chief executive officer of Metro, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, WMATA. He joins us in studio along with Martin Di Caro, who is WAMU 88.5's transportation reporter. In addition to fare card changes, new rail cars will also be coming soon in addition to offering an upgrade in terms of design and comfort. You're also offering boosted safety. What improvements do they often -- can riders continue to confidently board the older models that are still in use?
SARLESI'm sorry, I missed the last part of the question.
NNAMDICan riders continue to confidently board the older model...
SARLESCertainly. The older models -- well, first of all, we're getting rid of this 1000-series cars. So that will phase out, getting rid of the 4000-series cars. They'll phase out after that. Naturally, you wanna ride on a new modern car with all -- for all the conveniences, better seating, better lighting, dynamic size, to tell you where the next station is and when you get -- getting to that station, what you can find around that station. As I said, more comfortable sitting. So all those things will be much better. In fact, I think, if I were a customer, I'd almost wait for new train to come by.
CAROAnd the new trains will not be combined, I think we should point out, with any of the old models. These are technologically advanced. They're 21st century trains, not 1970s trains. And which line -- will they appear on all five lines or all six lines, well, when and if the silver line opens. We'll get to that maybe today. But will they appear on any one line first or all?
SARLESThey will run on the system, you know, even on silver line. You're running from Reston, all the way to out over to Largo.
CAROBriefly on the silver line, we're waiting to find out from the Airports Authority and from (unintelligible)...
NNAMDIThe silver line has been under the control of the Airports Authority. But it's soon going to be coming under your purview at WMATA. When do you expect passengers will be able to climb aboard?
SARLESAbout 90 days, within 90 days after the Airports Authority turns it over to us.
CAROSo the testing was completed this weekend, but there has been no official word on how it went. I reported this first on Monday that they were still tabulating, analyzing data. The Washington Post reported today, citing unnamed source that there may have been glitches in the software that controls train safety. I'm not trying to be an alarmist here about the silver line never opening or they're going to be dangerous when they open. I don't believe that's going to be the case.
CAROHowever, another delay would push this back possibly to summer, late summer, early autumn. Every month the silver line doesn't open, that's $2 to $3 million out of your bottom line because you still have a workforce that you have to train and operate and pay. You don't seem nervous at all about this that you may not be getting the silver line until summertime, autumn time if there's another delay, if.
SARLESFirst of all, I'm not alarmed, to begin with. As the person that's going to be responsible for the operation, I am actually very happy and comforted that Airport Authority is doing a very thorough testing job. That is good. And they've done it very methodically. They've held the contractor speak to the (unintelligible) , they're doing what they should. They will turn it over to us as soon as it is acceptable and then we will do our own running test and familiarization for ourselves as well as emergency responders and then we'll start operating.
CAROAnd for the record, just real briefly, Kojo. For the record, the Airports Authority has not yet officially said anything about the outcome of the test over the weekend. So we do not know if there'll be another delay yet.
NNAMDISpeaking of who controls what, we got an email from Andy who said, "Does your guest have any role in the street car? Also, what are the plans for the X2 bus after implementation of the street car?"
SARLESWe have no role on the street car at this point. Certainly as the street car goes in -- street cars go into operation, we'll evaluate how it affects the service we provide.
NNAMDIHere is Jay in Rockville, MD. Jay, you're on the air. Go ahead please.
JAYHi, Kojo, thanks for having me on. My question I have is, I've been on the red line train leaves twice where the train that was behind me had mechanical difficulties or broken down and the train that was I on was held because of that. If you could explain the logic and/or technical reasons behind that, I appreciate it. Thanks.
SARLESYou're saying the train behind you was having difficulties?
NNAMDIHave problem, his train was held up as a result.
SARLESI can't -- unless I know the specific incident, I really can't explain it unless they were thinking that your train might have to use -- be used to recover the train that was having a problem.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Jay. Go ahead, Martin.
CAROWell, we were on the issue of the 7000-series trains. It's going to be another couple of years before the 1000-series, we have about 300 of those, are finally phased out, right?
CAROSo I mean, that's one answer to folks' question about how much longer this is going to happen. In so far as any problem is caused by an old rail car that has a door problem, that doesn't function well in the cold weather, until those 1000-series are out of the system, these problems will continue.
SARLESCertainly. I look forward to replacing the 1000-series cars. But I also want to say, at the same time, that we just don't just sit there and say, well, we can't do anything, even the cold weather problems we're having now, our engineers try to determine the specific cause of the problem, it's not just one cause. And they make those fixes where they can.
CAROWell, during the break we discussed part of the problem, too, is lack of redundancy on the tracks here. There's really nowhere else to go when you have to do weekend work, you only have two tracks. When there's a problem during rush hour in the morning, you only have two tracks. We've talked a little bit about some of Metro's very ambitious $25 billion plans to expand the system. Anything in there about adding redundancy here? Or is that impossible now just given the construction issues and challenges that would be faced?
SARLESWell, the most immediate plans, the Metro 2025 plan, which is about $6.5 billion after the 2025. Most of that involves increase in the capacity and the reliability of the system. However, there is one segment in Virginia addressing the blue line which, as you know, because of the silver line, we've had to reduce the number of trains in rush hour that go under the road on the blue line.
CAROOne every 11 minutes.
SARLESAnd so that what we envisioned as part of Metro 2025 is to create a second station at Rosslyn so that the blue line could at least run up there during the rush hour and provide a better place for people to transfer.
NNAMDIHere now is Tara in Vienna, VA. Tara, you're on the air. Go ahead please.
TARAYeah, thanks. I have two questions for the general manager. First is about the cost. The fares go up so high. I mean, in terms of cutting costs, has the Metro done anything to control, like, electricity in terms of escalators, off-peak hours, they're like same direction (unintelligible) are on the same time. There's no people use them, you know? Can they shut down one escalator?
NNAMDIWhat kind of cost-cutting measures have you considered like that?
SARLESWell, let's take the escalators. Sometimes you'll see some shutdown. But, frankly, turning escalators on and off can cause more problems, especially with the older escalators and cause less reliable operations. And we try to avoid that. Every time we look at a fair increase, however, we take a look at what we can do -- continue to do, it's a continuous process for us of where we can reduce cost. Some of the things, especially over the last year.
SARLESSo we looked at our administrative area and found ways to improve our processes so that we would not -- we could actually streamline the staffing in those areas. We also looked at our inventory control and found ways to improve that so we don't have to buy materials as often.
CAROI think the elephant -- there's actually an elephant and a donkey because it's a political question. The elephant in the room is funding. And we talk about all these advancements and even the ongoing rehab that's going to be -- need to be renewed after 2020, the current 10-year, $3 billion congressional appropriation, the grants needs to be renewed after 2020. Talk about any of the stuff, it's a question of money.
CAROAnd there is untapped money in Metro system in the form of land that needs to be developed around Metro station in Prince Georges County. There's going to be, obviously new Metro stations out in Lowden County by 2018. Metro is not a taxing authority. You just simply can't assess as Fairfax County is doing, the developers around Tysons Corner, a very high tax rate to make money. But there is opportunities for revenue here. Can you talk a little bit about what you have planned?
SARLESWith regard to transit-oriented development, which is around the station, certainly we're working very aggressively in Prince Georges County to have joint development there. Along the silver line, however, we control no property around the station. So there's no opportunity. However, those opportunities, I frankly, while they generate some revenue for us in terms of capital investment, that's not going to solve the problem.
SARLESWe're talking $6.5 billion by 2025 to provide the improvements to the bus and rail. And that really requires looking at the funding in the two states and the District in terms of what should be allocated to Metro.
NNAMDIAnd we got an email from Carolyn who says, "Why can't Metro just generate more revenue from advertising?"
SARLESWell, we do -- we generate as much as we can. We generate close to $20 million a year in advertising. In fact, we just rebid our contract for that and increase the guarantee up to around $20 million or so. I don't think there's a lot more opportunity. Although I will say that with digital signs coming along, there is another opportunity which we will take advantage of.
CAROHow about the jurisdictions? Is D.C., Virginia, and Maryland giving enough?
SARLESThe three jurisdictions have been extremely supportive in terms of the operating budget and funding that every year, so that it reduces the impact on the rider. With regard to the Capitol project, they have been excellent, including the federal government in supporting the reconstruction of the system. Now the question before them is what support can they and do they want to provide for Metro 2025 to increase the capacity to continue to support regional economic growth.
NNAMDIWell, this is the nation's capital and earlier this month Metro received the 25-year award from the American Institute of Architects. The current system largely adheres to designs first envisioned by architect Harry Weese. But there are controversial plans to renovate the Bethesda station as a, quote/unquote, "station of the future" which would use different materials like glass and new lighting fixtures. Some architects seem to be alarmed by these plans. They think it will alter a very beautiful and well-designed system. Why do you think we need to amend Harry Weese's vision?
SARLESWell, certainly Harry Weese's vision will stay in place in terms of the arched, vaulted stations and that sort of thing. We have received feedback on the original proposal on the Bethesda station design in terms of sensitivities to that and we are modifying that proposal so that we try to accommodate those concerns.
NNAMDIAnd speaking of this being the nation's capital, we got an email from Collin who says, "Frankly, I find it an embarrassment to the entire capitol region. D.C.'s transportation system should be the best in the country, but it can't even get most people to work reliably each day." How does Metro compare with other transportation systems in major metropolitan areas in the country?
SARLESVery well, I'd say, from my personal experience.
NNAMDIWhat do you say, Martin Di Caro?
CAROWell, I do -- Mr. Sarles, I mean this honestly -- I do prefer the New York City subway system. But they also have ways of getting around some of the problems that Metro doesn't have. We were just discussing the lack of redundancy, the lack of tracks. But I'm not an expert on that. So I can only compare to where I'm from, which is New York. I use Metro every day. I think the bus system is...
NNAMDIOh, so you're from New York that's why you favored New York's subway system.
CAROYeah, well, I'm sorry. I have an inherent bias.
NNAMDII thought this was an objective, journalistic observation that you were making.
SARLESI just want to point that I originally grew up in north Jersey and commuted a lot into New York City and I still prefer the WMATA system.
CAROOh, well, there you go. And maybe he has a bias there as well.
NNAMDIYou get the final question.
CAROWell, just, you know, in a way we're in a catch 22. You said transit-oriented development, right? The more we develop our Metro stations, of course, the more pressure there will be on Metro to add that capacity. But we need to do that, right? Lack of capacity on Metro is not a reason to not develop areas. High rises are going up along the orange line in the northern Virginia. And they're advertised, Jonathan O'Connell in the Post did a great article about this, advertising, you know, we're a one minute walk to Metro.
CAROWhat they don't tell you is that the orange line is packed to capacity every single day. So, really, this is not all incumbent on you and you've taken a lot of heat during this hour. But Metro does have a role in lobbying Congress to convince our national leaders that a massive investment in transit, not just here but across the country, is necessary. Correct?
NNAMDIWhat are you doing about that?
CAROYeah, that's a better question, I like it.
SARLESI think the question really is, we certainly make known what the program should be, how it will address these issues, what it will cost and when we can do it. And it's now up to the elected leaders and the people that vote for them to say, we want to do it and we'll provide the funds.
CAROBut isn't it time now to begin lobbying Congress to fulfill the 10-year appropriation that expires in 2020?
SARLESAgain, it's not only Congress that provides money here. It's the local jurisdictions. Everyone has to understand what's at stake. It's very important to the growth of this region, it's very important to the nation's capital. And I think as people understand that and come to understand that, that they will be willing to provide the funds necessary to attain that.
NNAMDIRichard Sarles is the general manager and chief executive officer of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, Metro. Mr. Sarles, thank you for joining us.
SARLESIt's been a pleasure. Thank you very much.
NNAMDIMetro has its Momentum program and we have our own Momentum program here at WAMU 88.5, it's called Martin Di Caro, WAMU 88.5's transportation reporter. Martin, thank you so much for joining us.
CAROIt's my new nickname apparently now. Thank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
Most Recent Shows
Have opinions about the Democratic National Convention, or the verdicts from the Freddie Gray cases? It's your turn to talk.
Maryland prosecutors on Wednesday dropped charges against the remaining police officers facing charges related to Freddie Gray's death. Kojo explores what the outcomes of the cases say about our local justice system and the national repercussions.
The next frontier in the battle against sexual harassment and sexual assault? Bars.