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The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s new general manager and CEO talked Tuesday about increasing Metrorail and bus service, reviewing the overall fare structure and the long-term future of the region’s transportation system in his first briefing with the Montgomery County Council.

Randy Clarke told council members that he’s been a customer of the system since he took over the helm of WMATA in late July and that experience is helping him approach how to make improvements.

In an interview after the briefing, Clarke said his current priority is improving the reliability and service of the rail and bus system that Metro offers today. Montgomery County is served by more than 20 Metrobus routes as well as Metro’s Red Line, which travels from Shady Grove through Rockville and Bethesda and into Washington, D.C., and comes back north through Silver Spring, Wheaton and Glenmont.

Council members asked Clarke about overall ridership levels and how they’ve been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, what progress is being made on development near Metro stations, and how the fare structure might change in the coming months and years. 

Clarke said that commuters’ habits are not “monolithic.” In some instances, some bus lines are more busy than they were prior to the pandemic, he said.

Concerning rail, Clarke said that the Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday morning commutes are becoming as busy as they were prior to the pandemic. He anticipates that the increase in ridership will continue — noting that some other times, such as Friday evenings, have become even busier due to new work habits.

“You have a 25-year-old on Zoom all day, the first thing they want to do is get out,” Clarke said. 

Council Member Tom Hucker noted legislation that the council passed in 2020 to encourage development of housing near Metro stations and asked if the legislation and recent changes in federal law and regulations have helped with that type of development. The county bill provides a 100% property tax breaks to developers for up to 15 years after, allowing them to instead make a payment in lieu of taxes, known as a PILOT program.

The changes have helped, including a proposed development near the Grosvernor Metro station, Clarke said — but he added that local jurisdictions still need to be heavily involved in any potential deal about building housing near a Metro station. And if Metro owns land near a proposed housing site and decides to gift it to developers and the county for affordable housing, it’s important to realize that Metro won’t receive revenue from the transaction, he added.

“I want as much density around transit modes as possible,” Clarke said. “[And] we should do everything we can … to make it as frictionless and seamless to build multifamily housing [in those areas].”

As for Metro’s fare system, Clarke said possible changes in the fare system are still in the infancy stage — but it’s clear that the system is complex and needs to be revamped in some way.

He said that longer trips, like those from Shady Grove to Union Station in the District, should cost more than shorter ones because of the distance and overall maintenance and work required on a longer distance of track — as is the case now. But ultimately, the fare system should be easier to understand, he added.

Council Member Craig Rice was perhaps most critical in his questioning of Clarke. He said that Paul Wiedefeld, Metro’s previous general manager and CEO, had promised improvements and yet residents have had to deal with challenges and delays — most recently, the sidelining of Metro’s 7000-series railcars after a derailment near Arlington Cemetery due to problems with the wheels. 

Clarke said he still believes the system is safe and that’s why he rides it every day.

“The past is the past, I’m not going to opine on the past … I live in the future, and I’ve been hired by the board to deliver a better future,” Clarke said. “I’m going to bring the lens of a customer because I’m a customer, period … . I’m on the system, all day, every day.”