Montgomery County Council members understand how difficult Randy Clarke’s job is.
At the end of a discussion between him and the County Council on Tuesday, Gabe Albornoz compared his responsibilities to perhaps the most well-known man in Washington, D.C.
“This is without a [doubt] out of the most challenging jobs in the D.C. region, right up there with President of the United States,” Albornoz said.
Clarke, who took over as the general manager and CEO of Metro in late July, is presiding over the regional transit system as it has begun returning its newest trains, the 7000-series, back to the tracks after issues with that model’s wheels caused a derailment near Arlington Cemetery last year.
Metro is also facing a considerable budget deficit of $185 million from fiscal year — a considerable amount, albeit much smaller than previous estimates of $500 million and then $350 million, DCist reported. The system also is currently assessing how to deal with riders evading fares, which Metro estimates costs over $25 million annually, according to news reports.
Clarke is an avid user of the Metro system, tweeting pictures of himself riding trains and buses to get around the Washington, D.C., area. That included Tuesday morning when he took the Red Line from Washington, D.C., to Rockville to attend a council meeting. Clarke said it’s important that people understand that he will bring the “lens of a customer” to the job as someone who uses the Metro system every day.
Bethesda Beat spoke with Clarke after Tuesday’s council briefing about improving service on the Red Line, developing affordable housing near Metrorail stations, ridership equity, and other topics. Questions and responses are edited for length and clarity.
You said during the briefing that the ideal wait time for trains on the Red Line is six minutes between trains. When will Metro meet that goal?
I can’t put a specific date on it. It’s really that we have to bring our trains back and ensure a quality safety process. And I think we’ve demonstrated that really well so far. We went from zero trains back to eight, and now we’re up to authorization for up to 20. We’ve done something like 500,000 miles [of testing] and 40,000 measurements since early June, and we’ve had zero wheel migration detection. So every measurement has been on point. And that is really the issue — the derailment happened when a wheel migrated over time, and so our measuring process is confirming no wheel migration, and so we’re expecting to bring more trains back, now that we have a quality safety process.
This is outside of your control, but some residents have called for more MARC service through Montgomery County to improve commuting options. Have you thought about that issue, at least for the long term?
I’ve honestly had almost zero conversations related to that topic. It’s only been eight weeks [since I started], and I’m really focused on the system we have today, and running that to the safe, reliable, frequent way that people need it. And then I’m happy to talk with regional stakeholders about [MARC service]. That’s really the transformation about what we want Metro to be long-term versus today where I’m focused on bringing trust and credibility to the customers and community on Metro.
The council discussion talked about building more affordable housing near Metro stations. How does that happen?
We can’t do development in 15 places at the same time, for obvious reasons. But we have a real estate team, they’re very good, they’re moving [our strategic real estate plan] forward. I was at Congress Heights last week with the Amazon program. We just did a big thing out at New Carrollton. We got to financial close last week at a Grosvenor development and so that one is really kind of getting active. We have something in North Bethesda that we’re working on. It’s one of those things where if you’re prioritizing a hundred things, you’re doing nothing. It’s a little bit of crawl, walk, run, but the council has created an incentivized framework for people to build high density around rail stations, so their partnership is appreciated.
You spoke about the challenges that arise from the loss of revenue that results if Metro gives away its land for development. Can you expand on that?
The only true asset we have to monetize for independent revenue is real estate. And so I’m not trying to say whether it’s good or not, but just using it as an example, if we have a $10 million property in any of the jurisdictions and someone said, ‘Give us that $10 million property,’ that means Metro has just lost $10 million of revenue potential that I need to run the system. And so I need someone to backfill the $10 million. And if you do it in one jurisdiction, you have to do it in every jurisdiction because we have to be fair across the board. So what we need to do is come up with a predictable, sustainable long-term funding mechanism and then those types of real estate deals are something that become a lot more policy-driven for outcomes than just pure financial ones.
Recent news reports have indicated that Metro might install new fare gates, or at least make modifications to existing fare gates, to prevent fare evasion at rail stations. How would the changes account for the issue of equity considering some riders legitimately can’t afford the fare?
One, we’re not looking at new fare gates, but modifications to the fare gates, that’s a definite different thing. Two, we’re working towards a warning and eventual citation program across all of our jurisdictions. There’s going to be more coming out on that relatively soon. And part of equity, and what I think what we have to be careful about is, if we as a region believe that we should have a low-income fare program, then great, we should have a jurisdictional conversation about that. … With that said, someone who has the means to pay a fare is not only doing fare evasion, they are hurting our equity outcomes because the people who are going to be impacted the most by not having enough money to run Metro are people who are more transit-dependent, more low-income people, and as a region, more people of color.
There’s been a good amount of chatter about which government partners need to contribute more funding to the operation of the Metro system, including the federal government. Who should be paying more?
Whoever you talk to, someone else needs to pay more, and it doesn’t mean they’re right or wrong. What we need to do, and I’m not trying to put a thumb on any scale, is we have to have a regional conversation about what we want Metro to be, and then let’s figure out how we fund that. Part of the challenge, again, is Metro doesn’t have its own funding like most transit agencies, and therefore it’s basically a negotiation all the time with the jurisdictional partners. Which if that’s the way the region decides we’re going to do it forever, then that’s the model we have to do. But the region has to come to grips with what we want Metro to be, and then, how do we pay for it?
You also spoke about how the fare structure might change. Will shorter trips be less expensive, and longer trips be more costly?
I think we need to put it all on the table. We clearly can’t be in revenue decline, we’ve got to be at a minimum, revenue neutral. We want to encourage ridership, and we want simplicity, and it needs to be equitable. So we need to take all those factors. It’s based on mileage traveled, and it’s complex, so we need simplicity to drive ridership and make it fair for people to use.