WMATA board announces new pick for GM

Paul Wiedefeld (Courtesy Maryland Aviation Administration)
Paul Wiedefeld (Courtesy Maryland Aviation Administration)

WASHINGTON — Metro’s board of directors says it has chosen former Baltimore-Washington International Airport chief executive Paul Wiedefeld to lead the struggling transit agency, which has been without a leader since January.

The WMATA board made the announcement after a closed-door session Thursday morning where they were believed to be discussing who they want to lead the system after the board’s first pick, aviation and aerospace executive Neal Cohen, opted out during final negotiations.

A contract has not been finalized with Wiedefeld, but he is expected to be formally appointed general manager at the board’s next meeting set for Nov. 19. He received unanimous board support, according to a board statement.

In July, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan fired Wiedefeld from his post as the airport’s CEO and head of the Maryland Aviation Administration, replacing him with Ricky Smith, who had previously worked at the airport.  Under Wiedefeld’s leadership, the airport expanded to serve a record number of passengers, built a new terminal for Southwest, added a parking garage and built a consolidated car rental facility.

Wiedefeld also previously served as administrator of the Maryland Transit Administration, which operates the MARC commuter rail service as well as light rail, subway and bus systems in the state.

Board chair Mort Downey said that he is confident Wiedefeld will take the needed steps to put Metro back on track after a crisis-ridden year. But he said riders, stakeholders and employees need to work with the board to improve the transit agency’s operations.

Interim General Manager Jack Requa will continue to serve in that role until Wiedefeld begins his new post.

Requa remained at the helm far longer than expected after several stops and starts to the search process for a new leader, which began a year ago when former general manager Richard Sarles announced he would retire.

Since Sarles’ departure in January, the system has faced a series of maintenance and safety problems that resulted in the death of a passenger on board a Yellow Line train, have slowed three lines because of power problems at the Stadium-Armory Station and forced the transit agency to reimburse customers for severe service disruptions. The Federal Transit Administration has assumed safety oversight of the system to ensure a longstanding series of safety matters stemming from the fatal 2009 Red Line crash are addressed.

Ridership has dropped amid unreliable service and the lingering safety concerns.

And Monday Metro announced that Cohen was no longer considered a candidate for the position after his name was leaked to the local press.

Board infighting was seen as contributing to the long-delayed search for a new general manage and the board was soundly criticized for leaking Cohen’s name.

And there could be changes to the board’s leadership as a result. Downey tells WTOP that he “doubts” he’ll serve as chair of the 14-member board again next year.

The board includes representatives from D.C., Maryland, Virginia and the federal government.

Virginia congressman Gerry Connolly called the board’s selection and Wiedefeld’s transit experience encouraging.

“I hope his familiarity with Metro and the National Capital Region will allow him to help turn around a Metro system reeling from crisis to crisis,” he said.

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe said he hoped Wiedefeld would provide the stability and expertise needed to make real changes at Metro.

Maryland congressman Steny Hoyer doesn’t expect an immediate about-face.

“I don’t believe the hiring of Mr. Wiedefeld will immediately solve all of Metro’s issues, but it’s an important step in the right direction to restoring the trust of its riders and stakeholders.”

A look at Paul Wiedefeld’s background
  • Bachelor’s degree in political science from Towson University;
  • Master’s degree in city and regional planning from Rutgers University;
  • Administrator of the Maryland Transit Administration — oversaw daily operations of the 13th-largest transit system in the country;
  • Engineering project manager for Parsons Brinckerhoff’s aviation practice;
  • CEO of BWI Airport from 2002 to 2005 and again from 2009 to July 2015.

WTOP’s Max Smith contributed to this report. 

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