Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington


Metro’s general manager proved he is a good sport during his Feb. 17 Arlington talk. A questioner took the mic and asked about the subway’s notoriously static-garbled P.A. system:

As Chuck Morley phrased his query: “Fkirlmllerly;MFMFMKEJIJEOJLJK*&&$&&#*$*$*FKSKKKKSK?”

The public official got the gag. Paul Wiedefeld, a 35-year transportation veteran who began the target-on-your-back Metro post Nov. 30, vowed not to “sugarcoat” the system’s troubles.

The indecipherable platform announcements, he said, were partly a hardware problem from older Metro cars and partly a training issue for drivers—some of whom know to speak clearly and are even “entertaining.”

Wiedefeld spoke publicly (rare for a Metro GM) to the Arlington Committee of 100 as part of a listening tour. He’s been meeting with riders, business groups and Metro employees to avoid “being trapped at Metro headquarters.”

Though braced for public brickbats, the executive came across as well-informed and disarming to those of us who, because we spend many hours in Metro, arrived with our own complaints and emotional attachments.

“We’ve lost credibility as an agency,” said the man tasked with winning back public confidence after years of Metro accidents, routine delays and declining ridership. “We’ve got to get back to where we were. There is impatience in the community, a deep frustration,” he said, “because Metro does drive the economy and does drive daily life.”

Wiedefeld’s priorities are safety, basic operations and fiscal solvency. After all, his own daughter uses Metro when she visits from Baltimore on weekends, he said. The same self-interest in safety applies to Metro’s 13,000 drivers, mechanics, administrators and station managers. “But Metro’s safety culture is not as strong as it should be,” he admitted. “There’s a lack of accountability” and staff must learn to think five to seven steps ahead. Communication from supervisors is iffy, he said. “There’s a lack of transparency.”

Wiedefeld “got an earful” talking to front-line employees trying “to understand their world and where the challenges come.” He urged the workforce to take greater pride in being part of Metro’s team.

Of the WMATA system’s three prongs, bus and Metro Access seem healthiest, leaving rail to cause the most consternation. Rail requires “a hard look” and due diligence and ongoing maintenance. Metro is investing hope and funds in the new 7000 series car, but only 80 are in service out of 748 ordered, he said. Vendor Kawasaki “has not delivered the quality that will allow us to live with them for 40 years.”

Wiedefeld fields complaints about dirty stations and poor signage. (My own pet peeve: Why are some covered station platforms dangerously wet?)

The perpetually-under-repair escalators can’t all be protected by canopies because some jurisdictions complain the enclosures block viewsheds or construction halts service.

On the upside, WMATA has a good relationship with federal agencies to head off terrorist threats, Wiedefeld said. He has recommended no fare increase and no regional funding hikes his first year. Transit police will soon get new uniforms to make them stand out in a crowd.

Long-term, the system does have potential to expand if more riders are lured back to the new eight-car trains. He agreed Washington should mimic other regions with a dedicated source of funding.

Perhaps neighborhood volunteers at stations could help orient newcomers? Wiedefeld suggested. “There’s a lot of brilliant people in this area. I’m asking them to help me.”

* * *

Steve Buckhantz, the manly but mellifluous play-by-play caller for the Washington Wizards, is an Arlington boy.

I know because back in the 1960s the future award-winning broadcaster was my teammate on Arlington Optimists little league football. I can still hear Coach Joe Scott calling Buckhantz’s name at Tuckahoe field.

Steve went on to graduate from Washington-Lee High School (’73) and James Madison University before acquiring his professional real-time sports analysis skills. I got to remind him of our connection a few years ago when we sat together at high school football game in Vienna. I picked out that southern voice in a flash.