“It almost feels like I’m staying for too long in a bad relationship,” one woman said. It’s like a stressed “pulmonary system” that, if it failed, could spell the end of things as one knows it, a man commented.
They weren’t talking about other humans or even animals; they were talking about Metro, the region’s benighted transit agency, at a public hearing organized by a nascent riders’ union and emceed by the new general manager, Paul Wiedefeld. During the nearly two-hour event hosted Monday night at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, dozens of local residents expressed their deepest concerns and more-quotidian gripes to Wiedefeld, who’s now in his third week on the job. Though many speakers echoed frustrations riders have long voiced—about everything from the prevalence of single-tracking and the lack of cleanliness in parts of the rail system to employees’ apparent apathy and the agency’s communication failures—it was the first time in a long time that the head of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority directly interacted with customers in a public forum.
“In terms of [Metro being] the lifeblood of the community, I totally agree,” Wiedefeld said in response to one man’s remark that “the very fabric of this community has grown up around the Metro system.” “The way I think of Metro is: When I was a younger man, Washington, D.C., was the Monuments, the Mall, and Metro. It was part of the experience [and almost like] a Disney ride.”
Much has changed about the District since Wiedefeld, 60, was a youth, and getting on Metrorail certainly does not recall taking the Monorail in Orlando, Fla., for the overwhelming majority of passengers. But the new CEO was trying to garner some goodwill in hearing out riders, which included replying to the negative experiences they shared as much as the lofty questions they asked.
One attendee complained of the “inability to plan anything” using mobile apps that are supposed to track buses and trains. “You track a bus for five minutes out, ten minutes out, then it disappears entirely,” he said. “Does that bus come? Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t—you don’t know… It’s when people can’t count on something that frustration builds and builds and builds.”
Members of the audience clapped at those comments, as they did after another man, who identified himself as Mike, bemoaned Metro’s dearth of communication to customers about weekend service and relevant track work. “There’s no public statement for most things on when something will be done, whether something will be done on time,” he explained, citing long waits. “Nobody has to be accountable because there’s nothing to hold [Metro] accountable to. That’s a system failure and that needs to change.”
Another woman got applause from the public when she said she would like to see “basic safety” in the Metro system, adding that she’s still concerned about the death of a Virginia resident resulting from the Jan. 12 smoke incident at L’Enfant Plaza station.
“Safety is the number one priority,” Wiedefeld responded to her, explaining that Metro is currently seeking a chief safety officer. (The new GM has previously said, and reiterated Monday night, that his top three priorities are safety, reliability, and finances.)
At times, Wiedefeld acknowledged that he doesn’t have all the solutions to the issues customers highlighted, noting that he’s the new boss at Metro HQ. “I just don’t have that answer right now,” he said in reply to an inquiry about the logistics of how best to schedule rail maintenance. “We have a two-track system; I’m not going to make excuses for it, I’m listening. I want to maximize the service as much as we can but we also have to be very clear to people what we’re doing” so they can know what’s happening. To a question about his “ideal fare structure,” he replied: “The fare structure itself—to me it’s very complicated… It’s real tough.”
Wiedefeld also plugged the proposed customer-friendly initiatives contained in Metro’s fiscal year 2017 budget, such as a tap-in / tap-out option so riders won’t have to pay for rides they don’t take and a reduced-fare “University Pass” for District students. On the issue of unconcerned Metro employees, Wiedefeld at one point “pushed back a little bit,” arguing that such behavior isn’t “monolithic” and that he’s met many who are responsive to customers. (“In any organization, there are knuckleheads,” he said.)
As the GM told City Paper in a recent interview, he’s got a “load of work to do“—a reality that Monday’s public forum confirmed: Other riders pressed him on Metro access for people with disabilities, making the system more bike friendly, and even lighting.
“I hear your frustration; I hear your impatience; I hear your anger,” Wiedefeld remarked in closing. “I need that to get [Metro] where it needs to be. I see that as an opportunity.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery