WMATA Selects New General Manager To Lead Transit Agency Through Turbulent Time

WMATA Selects New General Manager To Lead Transit Agency Through Turbulent Time

Randy Clarke, a public transit CEO from Austin, Texas, is WMATA’s new general manager. He will face a series of challenges getting the country’s second-largest transit agency back on track.

His full plate on day one includes getting the 7000-series train wheel issues figured out, working on Metro’s safety lapses, and attracting riders back to the system. Metro predicts ridership won’t return to pre-pandemic levels until 2024.

The Metro board announced the pick Tuesday at its first in-person press conference since the pandemic began and its first at Metro’s new headquarters in L’Enfant Plaza.

Clarke is expected to start the job in late summer. He comes from leading a much smaller and less complex public transit system, serving as president and CEO of Austin’s CapMetro. At the press conference, he assured the public that he’s up for the challenge and emphasized consensus-building across jurisdictional leadership.

The incoming GM also emphasized the personal stakes of keeping WMATA running smoothly, as he intends to use Metro daily when he and his family move to the region.

“I guarantee you, there is no one in this community who wants safe, reliable, frequent service more than the future CEO of this organization and that CEO’s wife that will be on that service, he said. “So the community has my commitment that delivering quality, safe service will be the focus.”

Clarke said he’ll be there on trains and buses with riders.

“If they’re frustrated, I’m frustrated and my job is to fix the stuff that frustrates them,” Clarke told WAMU/DCist. “This team has work ahead to get the 7000s back. Everyone knows that. There’s no sugar coating that. Bus service has vacancy and staff issues and we have to get back to running the great service the region deserves.”

Clarke agreed to a five-year contract and a $485,000 annual salary, still making him the highest-paid transit CEO in the country, despite it being less than Wiedefeld’s $527,000 a year salary. Clark will also receive a $4,000 per-month housing allowance and is eligible for an annual bonus of up to 10% of the base salary.

The General Manager job at WMATA might be one of the most highly scrutinized local positions in the region — they manage the agency that touches an outsized number of peoples’ lives, from getting to work, to going home, and exploring the region more broadly. The job, managing nearly 13,000 workers, 1,600 buses, and 1,300 railcars, is complex, difficult, and often thankless.

The GM oversees rail and bus operations, safety, crafting the budget and service levels, working with government agencies and politicians, infrastructure and maintenance, planning, capital projects, community engagement, marketing, and ultimately serves as the figurehead of Metro.

Next budget cycle will be a challenge as Metro faces a $300 million budget shortfall, which may result in service cuts or asking local jurisdictions for more money to cover the gap. Clarke will have to navigate a new reality as commuting and transportation responds to coming out of the pandemic. They’ll have to set service levels to respond to that changing landscape.

Metro also adopted a Bus Transformation Plan to make the bus system function better. In 2022, it will focus on revamping its bus routes. The new GM will have to oversee Metro’s transition to a 100% electric fleet by 2045.

Metro is also facing a series of large capital projects, including opening the second phase of the Silver Line and a new in-fill station at Potomac Yard opening later this year. It also has plans to address crowding in the Rosslyn Tunnel, which could result in a whole new line and set of stations. It is also finishing a series of project rehabilitating old outdoor station platforms.

They’ll also have to work with ATU Local 689, Metro’s largest union, to renegotiate a contract by summer 2024. In 2018, the union authorized a strike during negotiations, but workers never actually left job sites.

And Clarke will be charged with overcoming low rider satisfaction. On Monday, Metro reported just 68% of rail riders were satisfied in the latest quarter, down from 91% a few months ago. Bus riders are similarly disgruntled, with 64% saying they’re satisfied with service. Metro says the lower numbers are due to service reductions because of the October derailment that sidelined the 7000-series trains, as well as a aCOVID-related operator shortage.

Clarke, Metro’s 11th permanent general manager, will have time to ease into the job. Metro’s board hopes Clarke will have time with General Manager Paul Wiedefeld before his retirement on July 30. Wiedefeld, 66, announced he was leaving in January, saying transit was facing a “seismic shift” and that Metro” needs a leader who can commit to several years of service and set a new course.” His contract required him to give six months’ notice before quitting.

“I look forward to building upon the successes both of this board and of Paul and the team,” said Clarke at the press conference.

Clarke said returning 7000-series trains to service will continue to be a priority under his leadership. He also offered some insight into his approach to safety: He doesn’t consider safety to be a priority but a “value.”

“It’s just part of how you have to operate,” he said of safety. Clarke also sounded interested in meeting WMATA’s sustainability goals more quickly than initially projected, but recognized the challenges of electrifying such a large fleet.

Following the announcement, riders started chiming in with their own suggestions on Metro’s Facebook post sharing the news. “Hopefully this means expanded cross-Potomac bus service is more likely,” said one commenter. “We need rush hour bus and bicycle- only lane on major roads like North Capitol,” said another.”

Prior to leading Austin’s transit system, Clarke worked for two years at the D.C.-based nonprofit the American Public Transportation Association, according to his LinkedIn. He lived in Ward 2. Serving in executive leadership there, he oversaw technical programs, including safety audits. Before that, he spent six-and-a-half years at Boston’s public transit system, acting in multiple roles including deputy chief operating officer and chief safety officer. He’s originally from Nova Scotia, Canada.

In January, Metro Board Chair Paul Smedberg said the board was looking for someone who had solid management skills and a background in fiscal management. Safety, customer service, and working with a myriad of regional and federal politicians were also top priorities. The board hired Krauthamer & Associates to lead the search that took just over 100 days — significantly shorter than the last search, which ended almost 14 months after Richard Sarles announced his retirement. Wiedefeld was hired after another candidate agreed to take the job but dropped out. Smedberg said they had 45 well-qualified applications but they were looking for a “unicorn.”

“This person doesn’t just run the agency, there’s all this stakeholder and community engagement and that is important, and a big part of that job,” Smedberg said.

Earlier this year, a Metro survey of 500 riders said they wanted the next GM to improve service and reliability, have practical transit experience, be honest, ethical, creative, innovative, and responsive to input.