Metro’s new general manager is optimistic that riders will return

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Metro and transit systems across the country face a number of challenges in the years ahead.

More than two years into the coronavirus pandemic, the shift towards remote work has reduced the number of passengers using transit. Fewer commuters mean fewer fares, which equates to hundreds of millions of dollars in reduced revenue for Washington-area transit agencies.

The pandemic, meanwhile, shows no sign of ending as looser back-to-office policies continue to limit face-to-face work, especially in downtown DC. Meanwhile, Metrorail has been operating a reduced schedule since October, when nearly 60 percent of its train carriages were closed and pulled from service after a federal safety investigation found a defect in the 7000 series car that caused the wheels to roll out.

The agency’s flow of funds for annual repairs, vehicle upgrades and replacements is also projected to be maximized in the coming years.

Metro passengers increase, but not enough to change financial projections

That’s the situation Randy Clarke, Metro’s general manager will face this summer. After a nationwide search, the Metro board this week appointed Clarke, chief executive of the Austin-based Metropolitan Capital City Transportation Authority, as its next general manager. He will replace Paul J. Wiedefeld, who retired June 30 after six years at the helm of the agency.

Clarke, 45, who has served in various transportation-related roles for more than two decades — including at Boston’s Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority and the American Public Transportation Association — spoke to The Washington Post about his reasons for taking the job and his plans. to get the Metro back on track. The interview was slightly edited for length and clarity.

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Q: Metro, overall, has recently seen an increase in passengers, but Metrorail continues to lag behind, running 35 percent of daily passenger trips before the pandemic. How do you get people back on the Metro, or should transit agencies focus on what’s working with Metrobus, which had recovered 88 percent of its passengers before the pandemic?

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A: All fashion is very important, and all customers are very important. I care about bus customers as much as I care about rail customers. They are all very important and they all bring different types of value to society in different parts of the day or on different days of the week. I am bullish on the long run. Are we currently experiencing a downward trend? Of course, we are out of the pandemic. The economy is up and down more than we all like, these days. There is a lot of uncertainty and anxiety. Another wave of covid has the potential to come.

Metro says passengers exceed transit agency projections

This will all work itself out. We have to come together as a region, and think long term, [review] Metro business model. There may be an opportunity to get more transit users at night. As a center of activity, DC is special. Think of the millions of people who come here every year. There should be no visitors coming here, living in the core, ever renting a car. They must be in [transit] services do all their activities. You have major developments in places like Tysons and along the Silver line and in that area. You have Nats Park and Caps.

There are all these opportunities throughout the day to get people to use transit, and for that we need a safe, reliable and frequent service. I look forward to working with partners and stakeholders and hearing from customers about how we can rebalance the network. None of this needs to be rethought. Transit is a hub of opportunity, and nothing is a workhorse of a good city like transit.

Q: With remote work increasingly widespread, what is the selling point of Metro? How do you get people to come back to Metrorail, specifically?

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A: First of all, I think there are a lot of people in Metro. I think the bigger question is how do we get more people back on the Metro. Most people, I’m sure, want to know it’s safe and reliable and often. If the 7000 series returns today, I personally believe—and I’m not under the hood here—but riders will be much taller than they are now because the frequencies will be much higher. If the Stage Two Silver Path was already operational, there would be more people wearing it.

you go to [Interstate] 66 around 4pm, and it’s just a line of taxis and Ubers. My understanding is the traffic in the DC area is pretty awful again. Gas prices are at their highest ever, and I don’t think that will change for a while. Obviously there is a huge environmental impact to driving. People want to take the railroad.

I think Metro is doing a lot of things right, and we have to go in and see where we can focus on improving things. Good repair conditions lead to good reliability and safety and that will keep more and more people coming back. People want frequencies and they want to know they are safe. We have to get people back into the transit system, because when the system works well, the whole area will work well too.

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Q: How do you capitalize on the growth of bus passengers and increase the reliability and frequency of bus services?

A: One of the main things that I am really looking forward to working with our partners is on the right path. The jurisdiction partner has the right of way, and I grant [the D.C. Department of Transportation] lots of credit now. I didn’t interfere, but obviously they did a lot.

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[Bus priority lanes] what kind of repairs do we need to do with all jurisdictions thinking: How do we move those buses safely and quickly to get as many people on board as possible and provide the best service to those customers? And if we can do it, then your bus-rail connection at the station is better. The whole system is improving.

Having shown its value during the pandemic, momentum is building for free or cheaper transit

Q: Many government leaders say transit is a public service and should be fully funded or made free to users. Several cities, including Kansas City and Alexandria, has been free of charge. What do you think about those ideas?

A: Transit is a public good. You can’t have a great city, a great region, without a great public transit system. That’s not possible. Every major city in the world has a well-functioning public transport system. So, rates are a tricky element.

We’ve funded transit in a unique way in America, and the conversation is growing in America about the right way to fund transit. Ultimately, someone has to pay for a public good, whether it’s a fire department, a school, or a transit authority. The service must be funded. So people have to come together and decide how to use their money to fund the services they care about.

In Austin, we can have a referendum and people are literally taxing themselves on property during the pandemic because they care so much about building a much larger transit system for the future of their community — the fastest growing city in the nation. In this community, we have to come together as a region and think about how we want this region to function — not only from a mobility perspective, but also from a social justice perspective, from a public safety perspective, traffic, environment, you name it. And transit should be a key player in all of those discussions.

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