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When Paul J. Wiedefeld, 60, officially began as Metro’s general manager and CEO last Monday, the weather couldn’t have been eerier—some might say more appropriate.
“This is going to sound odd, but the first three days where that overcast, that really dense [fog set in was] sort of like everything was bearing down on [me],” he joked Friday afternoon in his office at the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s headquarters on 5th Street NW. “Oh my gosh. But with the sun, [it’s] just a whole new attitude. And I got into [my new D.C.] apartment last night so that helped tremendously, to stop that back-and-forth [between the District and my home in Maryland] was really good. So I’m excited. A load of work to do.”
A load of work indeed. Riders’ satisfaction with Metrorail is down ten percentage points from a year ago, according to a recent report, and the number of problems rail passengers have experienced has jumped 300 percent since 2013. Wiedefeld can’t singlehandedly fix Metro, but his installment represents a rare chance for the agency to try and turn itself around. City Desk sat down with the new GM for a little more than half an hour on Friday afternoon to see what his plan and vision are to do just that.
The following interview has been edited lightly for concision and clarity.
You’re the new GM. A lot of our readers have a lot of gripes about Metro over the last few years, especially this past year [starting] with the January smoke incident [at the L’Enfant Plaza station]. Before we get to that, can you tell us about yourself, your personal life, your [family]? Who are you?
I was born and raised in Baltimore, [the] son of a firefighter. I went away for graduate school, to Rutgers, and worked up in Morris County, N.J., for a while. Then [I] came back to the area [and] met my wife, who actually went to GW for graduate school. [We] got married and have three children. One graduated from College Park, I have one in College Park, and then one that’s a junior in high school. I’ve got a dog and a cat, all that. But basically, the plan is: My daughter is a junior in high school [in Maryland], so I’m not gonna upset that right now. My wife will basically stay there, and then I’ll be here [in D.C.] four nights [or] three nights depending on if something pops up [at] home. That’s one of the reasons I chose [my current residence]: It’s easy [to get to] the MARC train both ways. Anyways, I’ll be pretty much full-time down here. We’re coming down Saturday night together as a family to get things a little bit more [organized].
Have you been taking the Red Line everyday?
Yeah. Obviously I’ve been taking Metro everywhere [laughs] but yeah, for the work-home trip it’s that.
What, through the eyes of a customer, have you seen while taking Metrorail and Metrobus that you’ve identified as areas for improvement? Areas for praise for the staff?
Every time I’ve been on a line, I’ve been taking the time to meet the station attendant there and introduce myself. And obviously they’re very respectful. Once you get through that initial handshake and that little bit of awkwardness, what I’ve found is that these people are committed. They get it. And they, I think, share some of the embarrassment that I guess I sort of feel coming in for [Metro]. It’s tough on these people to wake up every day or every other day and then see some story [criticizing] what they do, and they do by and large a very good job. Some of the things are out of their control, but they’re the face of the organization. So I understand some of the pressure they’re under and am trying to understand it more, and then obviously [I will try] to make it easier for them. I’ve stopped and talked to some bus operators on layovers. It’s the same feel from [them].
Has the first week felt like a whirlwind?
Oh, it has. It’s funny, though, part of it was just—this is going to sound kind of odd—the weather. I mean, the first three days where that overcast, that really dense [fog set in was] sort of like everything was bearing down on [me]… But I’m pumped. [I’ve got] a load of work to do, getting back to your original question. [There are] lots of things I see that I want to find out about why we’ve done it. I’m sure there’s some history to these things… People keep doing it because of the history. I want to challenge some of that stuff. And some of it may make very good sense. But other [things] I want to challenge, or, “Let’s just think about it differently, let’s do it differently.”
Can you be a bit more specific about that, when you say “history”?
One of the ones that bugs me is when I see escalators down and I see the way that we set it aside to do the work, with the four-by-eights, and with no sort of explanation of what’s going on here, [of] maybe what the complexity of it is. I was speaking to some of our [repair] workers the other day [about] what they’re going through. Again, they’re not doing it because it’s fun, to make it miserable on people; they’re doing it because of an issue. But I’m not sure we’re getting that across to people. And I think just even the way we set up sends a certain signal to people, which I don’t like.
If you go to the airport when we do construction, it’s a different feel. [Wiedefeld was CEO of Baltimore-Washington International.] We tend to let people know what’s going on. We tend to try to do a little bit better [job] of making it feel [like] those [stations] are architectural statements. And there’s some of those things that maybe I can or can’t change, [or] maybe it’s not worth it. But as a new person in this position [looking] at it, just look at it. You know, can’t we do better than that?
In terms of communication [with riders], what’s your plan for executing that? Is it more social media presence…?
I think it’s—I assume you’re going to [list] more—but I was going to say all of the above. We have to get the word out. I know we do that. But you have to get the word out in all types of different fashions. You have to keep getting it out. And people still miss it. We’ll never get it to everyone, or it [may not] be good enough. I understand that. But we gotta keep trying and don’t think or assume, ‘OK, we did it this way, we’ve done it this way for the last 25 years, so we’ll just keep doing it that way.’ The world’s changing around us. I will be forcing some of those issues, challenging the staff to think more creatively.
What’s your vision for restructuring Metro from the inside? Do you feel that too many people report to you?
Yeah, in terms of direct reports. My experience as a CEO in different work positions is [that] it’s a tighter group of people who, in effect, become the C-suite team. And basically they’re people you can turn to: They know every aspect of the business from every angle. It just helps tremendously with communication; it breaks down a lot of barriers, and that then starts to make sure [staff] understand[s], “This is where I’m managing, this is where I expect you to manage.” But obviously you have a very large organization here. So I will start that, in fact, next week. [I’m] starting to get a smaller group together, and they’re the core of the business: People [who] run [Metro]bus, it’s [the] operating officers, it’s the COO position, it’s the CFO position, it’s the chief engineering position, it’s our chief of business and administration. Those types of roles [that are] typical within a business framework. We don’t have it that way yet. I need to get to know people a bit more before I make a formal adjustment like that. But just the way I’m going to start to interact with people—we’ll do that.
Have you heard from the consultants at McKinsey and Ernst & Young, who are conducting an efficiency study of Metro, about how to restructure the agency?
They did a briefing—a very short briefing—just an update. They’ll do a larger briefing for the board [this month]. There’s not a whole lot there I can say except that I’ve digested [the briefing], and I’ve got a big thing in that bag to read over the weekend, to get a bit deeper into it. I’m using it as a tool. The timing couldn’t be more perfect because [the study is] very quick, which is good. They’re a very talented team; they’re bringing the perspective of not only what they’re seeing here but [also] of what’s going on in the industry worldwide.
With the fiscal year 2017 Metro budget being proposed and talked about at [Thursday’s] board meeting, how would you explain, in plain language, to a rider what that budget means for them?
To me, what’s important is, given where we’ve been over the last year, [that] it’s not the time to basically put any additional pressure on the customer, either through fares or cut[ting] service. I think we’ve gotta focus on the in-house and get this [agency] better without penalizing [riders] and/or asking them for any additional dollars. What I’m hoping to do is get a bit of a, “Give me a chance to reset a bit.” We’ll deal with other issues down the road. It’s more important to get [Metro] operating as best we can with the resources we have.
If Metro is not going to raise fares or cut back on service, what’s going to close the gap financially?
What we’re doing, and it came up yesterday, is we’re in effect using some money from the capital program for the operating side. I think that’s a decision for the board eventually to make, but that’s what we’re proposing. And it’s a one-time event. I think it’s a unique time to do it. If everything was just rolling along smoothly, if I’d been here three years, then I would not propose it, to be honest with you. I don’t think [it’s] a good strategy [in the] long-term. But I think it’s a unique situation between a new GM, where we’ve been in the last year-plus, a new partnership with [the Federal Transit Administration], these major efficiency efforts that we have underway. So let’s pull all that together and then let’s create a more strategic budget going forward. I just don’t think we’re there right now to do that.
What in this past week have you done with the FTA? Have you met with Acting Administrator Therese McMillan?
Not this week. To be honest, she’s [been] unavailable this week. But I have met with her before I took the job, [and] I’m hoping to meet with her again next week—it’s to be decided. We’re going to have a good relationship. We’re going to have a real good relationship. We’re very direct with each other. There’s no beating around the bush. We’ve got issues. She’s got a role to do, her agency has a role to do. We also need to make sure we’re working in partnership on [fixing Metro]. I think we’re on the exact same mindset. I know we are.
And after your first week, have you made any progress in finding a new officer to head Metro’s safety operations?
We have. There’s a process you go through. I actually signed off on some things to get that moving very quickly. So that is underway. I have reached out to my colleagues in the industry [and in the consulting world] and have asked for them if they know of talent out there. We have some people in-house [who] I think are talented too, but we want to make sure that we keep [the process] open and get the best person. The other signal I’m trying to send here is, “Hey, it’s a new day here and don’t be fearful in coming here maybe.” I’m doing that at the same time [as] I’m trying to make sure I understand who we have here and make sure everyone’s in the right place.
Do you have any outside-of-the-box ideas for how to bring Metro’s customer-satisfaction ratings back up?
Actually I think the staff did a good job in some of the things they ran by me. The tap-in/tap-out [when there are service delays and you still have to pay a fare even if you ultimately decide not to ride Metrorail], that’s a frustrating thing for people. I was very supportive of [changing] that. I think this university pass idea [for local students] is a really good idea. We will be rolling out more and more of those [things] as more and more ideas come to me. I’m [also] challenging old schools of thought. Some of these things aren’t new; it’s just that we haven’t done them. Again I think there’s probably some history there of why.
You have a meeting with the WMATA Riders’ Union scheduled that’s coming up. How are you planning for that meeting to directly interface with customers, particularly with people who are, frankly, kind of angry about Metro?
One is to get out and meet with them. They said, “Get out and communicate. Understand what we’re going through. We’re not sure that’s coming across.” We have our own [riders] advisory group. They’ve been supportive of the tap in/tap out. We’re moving that way.
Have you gotten your feet wet in the social media aspect of how WMATA news travels on Twitter and Facebook?
I am [doing that]. I have a 16-year-old daughter, so I can ask her for [help with that], but I’ve got to get people around me [too].
What’s your working relationship with [previous Interim GM/CEO] Jack Requa been like over the past few days?
Oh, excellent. What a tremendous resource. Obviously he’s been here, I think, almost 18 years, so he knows the system very well, he knows some of the people, he knows that I am coming in here with some different ideas, and he’s helping me to [get things] start[ed].
Did he have any concrete words of wisdom that you remember from meeting with him?
Well, he came in Monday night [my first day] and said, “I want to make sure you’re coming back tomorrow.” [Laughs] He said, “I just want to confirm that you’re coming back tomorrow.” [Requa] has been very direct: Where he is in his career, where I am in my career, I think we can have a very direct conversation about things, about organizational things, about service things, about lots of things maybe you couldn’t [discuss] at a different stage in your careers. He’s a proven professional. I’d like to think of myself as a proven professional.
In D.C., more people are riding bikes, and it’s a pretty walkable city as it is. In that environment, how do you see Metro convincing people that they should take the bus, and/or take the train when they have other transit options?
It’s not a competition thing to me. I think it’s part of the whole experience of being here. That’s the beauty of it, right? Isn’t that where we all want to get to? People who subscribe to the sustainability approach [know] that it’s not an either-or. Sometimes—guess what?—you might get a Zipcar. It’s not the end of the world. Or you take transit. Whatever. Twenty, 30 years ago you had generally two options: You drove or maybe you caught a slow-moving bus somewhere. I think what we need to do from our perspective is make sure we’re providing the best product we can to be part of [D.C.’s transit] network. And then people will use us when it works for them and they won’t when it doesn’t. They’ll use a bike when it works and they will not when it doesn’t. A lot of regions across the country would love to be in this position. You’re doing 1.4 million passengers a day, [Metro] still plays a big role. It’s gigantic for the health of the region, economic health, the environmental quality of the region, the traffic. Oh my gosh, what would [the traffic] be [without Metro]?
From the meetings you’ve had so far with Metropolitan Police Department Chief Cathy Lanier, the Metro Transit Police, and other groups, particularly in light of certain threats the region has received recently as well as global news generally, are you worried about security on the Metro system? Should riders be worried about security on the Metro system?
No. I don’t think they should be any more concerned about security than they are in security that we all are concerned about. It is the world we’re all in now, for sure. What I am really pleased about is literally before I started here, I was able to get a briefing with our chief and the FBI, and obviously there [are specific] things that they brief you on, but the bigger takeaway for me was the partnership that they’ve got. These people are on the same page. That is tremendous to see. It is not good when they are introducing themselves and [have] never met each other, pre-briefings. And you can tell they’ve had a history of working through issues, many which have never gotten to the surface, and thank gosh. They are constantly monitoring, doing things that people do not see, sometimes things you do see.
Now that you’re back and living in D.C. for half the week, what is the most exciting part of being here for you?
I’m a big walker for one thing. So I love that. Being able to just literally walk [almost anywhere], and the other beauty [of] constantly intermingling with people that you need to intermingle with. Last night, I went to the Giant [on H Street NE] and bumped into the CFO from the city. That’s a blast. [The often-small-town feel] is one of the beauties of Washington. It’s great not being dependent upon a car.
How often are people coming up to you and saying, “Hey, aren’t you the new Metro guy?” Once a day? Every few?
Yeah, about that. Some of it is I’m bumping into people. Some of them even work here for all I know and they’re just being friendly. [Laughs] When I’ve been meeting some of the station [workers], I’m not randomly going up to customers. I think I might hold off on that for a little bit. What happens is a customer comes up, they’ve got an issue, and we’re standing there talking. And I say, “Can I help you?” That’s how I’ve been engaging with some of the riders—not telling them who I am but it’s another way to hear. And it’s another way to reinforce to the staff that this is how we react to people. And we’ve got [more official] things planned, like the meeting with the [WMATA] Riders Union. I’ll do that as well. I’ll just be around, and people can grab me when they want to grab me. I’m open to ideas.
Photo via Metro