Meanwhile, Clark is dealing with a shortage of trains caused by wheel defects on Metro 7000 series railcars, most of which remain on hold until transit agencies determine a way to operate them safely.
The cars make up about 60 percent of Metro’s rail fleet, and their absence has led to an average train wait time of more than 10 minutes for nearly a year. Even more frustrating for passengers is the growing prevalence of fare evasion.
Clark told The Washington Post about his plan. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Q: How concerned are you about Metro’s financial health, do you think transit ridership across the country has leveled off over the past few weeks and there aren’t more commuters due to telecommuting?
One. Metro may be uniquely different from some of these [other transit systems], because while society is emerging from this pandemic, we’re not running it on a regular basis either. We are dealing with a dual crisis. Most of our rail fleet – we still face a major challenge of bringing them back. And I do think that we’re seeing a significant drop in foot traffic because we’re currently not able to provide the frequency we need in the area. I think some people are thinking, “I don’t have to wait 15 minutes to get on the train — and then change? It’s not going to work for me.”
Q: Even if you restore all trains and restore frequency of service, what is the future of transportation in a telecommuting world?
A: In some ways, I think public transportation is going to get better in the long run because we — both at Metro and the transportation industry in general — are starting to really think about us as more than just commuters. I’ve been saying this for years, and I think this transition is actually healthy for us. It may be painful for a while, but I think it’s healthy in the long run.
I’ve always been a firm believer that if you’re working part-time at Capital One and you’re doing a franchise, we should be able to get you home after get off work like we get [federal] GS-13 employees work every day at HUD or DOE or any federal agency. Our old model was driven by peak commute times, and I think we’re going to evolve into: What does frequency scheduling look like to support a robust, diverse economy? Because the more diverse our economy is, the better and more resilient it is. So federal workers will always be a huge part of this economy.
But if you look at Northern Virginia, it’s becoming arguably the web technology capital of the world. We have an amazing city of nightlife, restaurants and events. Four major sports venues are on the Green Line. I don’t think anywhere else in the US has four stadiums on one rail line. Arguably the best museum in America. We have the National Zoo. We have all these other things like marathons and other events. We have to be open about what travel patterns or patterns look like and manage our people and assets for maximum benefit.
Q. Where can Metro find new customers?
A. I believe this area is great. I live here. It’s growing. It’s not stagnant. If anything, we have more transportation-related housing crises and land use issues. But I think the region has matured significantly in this regard, and it’s getting better. We opened the Silver Line extension, which is a huge international airport that will serve. This means we serve two airports.That Union Station Renovation Project Will change this area forever. The idea that MARC and VRE trains can run through Amtrak and then connect to us. We have the purple wire that will eventually connect to the new Carrollton. There are plenty of opportunities behind New Carrollton. We put the Potomac Yards station online. So I think there is a decent amount of green shoots.
Q: You’ve increased Metro’s customer service hours to handle passenger calls and questions, and Metro is more transparent and responsive to delays and other issues on social media. When you see passengers raising concerns, you have personally apologized to passengers on Twitter. How do you reinvent customer service?
A. I am a customer advocate every day. I am texting my employees every day. I am in the system every day. I’m on the bus, I’m on the train, at the station. I think it’s easy to get lost in transit agencies — that’s not a negative — it’s easy to get lost in projects, grants, and other things, and stray from the very purpose of our existence. I think covid has re-embedded not only us but probably a lot of public services and reminded everyone why we do what we do. We build things and run things for people. I think there is a resurgence in framing services by prioritizing public interest or community outcomes.
Q: One problem that many see that has proliferated during the pandemic and that Metro has largely failed to address is fare evasion. Is this a problem Metro plans to solve?
A. This is a challenging topic. It’s not subway-specific, it’s national. Very challenging, maybe even more so when it comes to buses. So one thing we want to be clear is that I’m not going to have our frontline staff get into physical fights over fare. This is unfair to our employees. Second, I think it’s fair to say that we’ve lost some social norms over the past few years. Obviously, people don’t always behave in an ideal way in public places. They behave in a way that most of us who grew up in one way or another would find it unacceptable. I don’t think this is a Metro issue. This is a deeper social issue and we are only part of the community.
I think we might admit that the wicket design on the rail side is not ideal. I’ve asked the team to start working on possible modifications. I’ll be criticized for that, and Metro screwed up. Whether it’s screwed up or not, the new toll booth also has some amazing technology. You can use your phone and we can collect all this data. And they’re not broken like the old ones, but the design of the wickets is the obvious thing we can see. Second, we have to figure out how to work with our partners in the district, since fare evasion is not criminalized, law enforcement in the area of civil subpoenas.I think we might be able to deploy video [surveillance] Slightly better, let people understand that when you come to our property, you come to the property of the community, please be respectful of other people using this station or using this train or this bus. I’m going to ask local leaders to help me.
There’s only so much Metro can do. We must also make others part of the solution. So for me, behind the issue is the fare structure itself. We must be open and honest.One of the things we did in Austin [where Clarke was chief executive of the transit system] – I don’t know if that’s the right place here, it’s not my decision – we created an Equifare program where people with really major financial problems can lower their fares. At the same time, those who can pay may have to pay a little more. Now – and one of the things I’m proud of is to be honest – not everyone who jumps is someone who can’t pay. But the other thing is that there are actually quite a few kids doing it.Kids actually ride for free [through a D.C. program that provides free transit cards to students]. It’s a verbose statement, we’re doing something.