WASHINGTON — As Metro’s new general manager was sworn in Thursday, he suggested that fare hikes might be off the table for now but also warned riders that it will take time to right the floundering transit system.
Paul Wiedefeld, a former Maryland transportation official, is set to take over the agency Nov. 30 and will earn nearly $400,000 for his work. He promised a top-to-bottom review of the transit system that could lead to staffing changes at the highest levels if employees do not get on board with his plans.
Wiedefeld told WMATA’s board of directors that his immediate priorities will be to focus on safety, reliability and the transit system’s financial health.
“We’ve lost our credibility,” he said.
One of his first jobs will be to install a permanent safety officer. The last person in the role, Jim Dougherty, stepped down following the Aug. 6 derailment near the Smithsonian Station. An investigation found the derailment could have been prevented.
As part of his preparations for taking over the transit agency, Wiedefeld has met with Acting Federal Transit Administrator Therese McMillan. The FTA has taken on temporary responsibility for safety oversight of Metro, and continues to keep a close watch on Metro’s finances.
Wiedefeld says he would not support any plans for a fare hike with the current level service on the rail system.
“That reliability has got to be met,” he says.
He said he understands riders’ frustrations but the problems the system faces won’t be fixed overnight. He declined to give a timeline for when riders could expect improvements.
With a long list of corrective action plans, Wiedefeld says he’s “got a lot of homework to do.” He says he aims to be a fresh set of eyes.
Wiedefeld was the board’s second choice in this round of the hiring process. Initial attempts to replace now-retired General Manager Richard Sarles fell apart earlier this year amid board disputes over the type of leader best suited for the troubled agency.
“I am not a nerd,” Wiedefeld told reporters when asked whether he fell more into the “transit nerd” category or was more of a fiscal turnaround specialist. He says he has qualities of both that will serve Metro riders well.
Wiedefeld previously ran the Baltimore Washington International Airport and the Maryland Transit Administration, which operates MARC commuter service and public transit in Baltimore.
The appointment comes more than a year after Sarles announced plans to step down.
Wiedefeld will earn $397,500 in annual salary and benefits, a compensation package that is more than the $366,000 Sarles made. Wiedefeld is also eligible for an annual bonus of up to 20 percent of his salary based on performance goals during each of the four years in the contract.
Metro Board Chairman Mort Downey says those goals will be set by Wiedefeld and approved by the board in line with existing Metro performance metrics.
Downey said the chances of Metro awarding the 20 percent bonus are small.
Metro will also pay Wiedefeld relocation benefits and provide him with $4,000 per month for the first six months for temporary housing. He lives in the Baltimore area and initially plans to commute by MARC trains and Metro’s Red Line.
Wiedefeld’s wife and 16-year-old daughter will remain in the Baltimore area while his daughter finishes high school.
He says he had discussed other jobs elsewhere in the country, but wanted to stay close to family and a familiar region.
“My wife went to (George Washington University), and we have been in this region for a very long time. The way that I remember Metro as a young man — Washington in general — it was the Mall, it was the monuments and it was Metro. And Metro was almost part of the experience. And I think we all sort of remember that and I think that’s what we’re all going to get back to,” he says.
Wiedefeld says he does not know the system like the back of his hand yet, but he will.
He believes he can move WMATA in the right direction with the help of the board.
On a lighter note, Metro Board Member Michael Goldman, who represents Maryland on the board, joked that Wiedefeld should shift his sports allegiances from Baltimore to D.C. now that he is moving south.
Wiedefeld simply said that he does like the Capitals and Wizards.