Paul Wiedefeld, the newly appointed head of Metro, faced his toughest crowd last night when he appeared before an audience of irate subway and bus users for a meeting of the WMATA Riders’ Union, a recently formed coalition of aggrieved customers of DC’s beleagured transit system.
In a nice gesture before he started fielding questions, comments, accusations, and outright rants, Wiedefeld paced the center aisle of the chairs assembled in the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, shaking hands and hearing out a few preview complaints.
“You’re pretty courageous for coming down here,” a man told the new general manager when he got to him to introduce himself.
“Yeah, or stupid,” Wiedefeld responded.
There were about 100 people in the crowd when Wiedefeld took the stage a little after 6:30 PM. He gave a short bio of himself and drew cheers when he said he’d already started commuting daily on the Red Line. But it wasn’t long before the main event began, and the microphone opened up for anyone to grab.
The passengers’ comments were almost universally dire. People described the system with phrases like “the worst it’s ever been” and “heartbreaking decline.” One woman equated her continued use of Metrorail in the face of abysmal service as “staying too long in a bad relationship.”
A few recurring and familiar notes were hit—poor customer service in the stations, a lack of communication about service interruptions, the terrible, seemingly futile experience of trying to use Metro on a weekend. The questioners were eager and determined to air their grievances—their hands shot up sharply as the microphone circled the room, and while they waited for their turn to speak, their arms stayed ramrod straight and high in the air.
Some issues raised were too sprawling and amorphous to be adequately addressed by Wiedefeld in a few sentences. Others were too granular and specific for someone only two weeks on the job. There were a few interruptions, a few raised voices, a few shouts. There were whoops and hollers from the crowd, affirmations about gripes with the X2 bus and salty station managers. There were questions that weren’t really questions, just the venting of personal anecdotes of Metro-inflicted injustices. One woman who said she was a former WMATA employee railed against management and union leadership over an ignored sexual-harassment complaint. Another man waved a sheaf of papers and alleged he’d be illegally barred from using MetroAccess.
But even among this anger, there were also a few bouts of applause for the new GM. Many attendees seemed honestly shocked at Wiedefeld’s participation, frequently opening their statements with marveled appreciation and thank-yous.
And Wiedefeld did seem to get a lot out of the event. He was deferential and contrite as he listened to riders’ desperate struggles with the system. Some questions were rambling and incoherent, as public forums often are. Wiedefeld gamely stuck it through these awkward points, nodding with an expression of intent listening on his face.
But the whole event ultimately seemed superficial. He’s brand-new on the job, and didn’t have the deep, insider knowledge of the system to give substantial answers or policy promises. The most activist stand he took was on a complaint about trash on the Mt. Vernon Square station escalators. They’d get right on that, he told the questioner.
Yet even if the appearance was largely symbolic, it could still be a huge benefit to Wiedefeld’s tenure. In the late 1970s, New York City was facing a similar subway crisis, with ridership plummeting as safety and reliability woes piled up. So Richard Ravitch, then the newly appointed head of the MTA, made one of his first actions to hold this very kind of public forum. More than 1,000 riders lobbed similar complaints that Wiedefeld heard Monday night. But afterward, Ravitch used that outrage to lobby for the money to fix New York’s system.
“Ravitch created a crisis in the public’s mind,” says Peter Derrick, a transit historian and visiting scholar at NYU. “He worked that in the press, and when he went up to Albany, he used that argument.” Our new GM would be wise to follow that course.
After nearly two hours, the final question Wiedefeld heard was from someone familiar with the problems outlined in Washingtonian‘s recent story on the how Metro got so bad. He wanted to know how Metro would fix the toxic culture and the Rail Operations Control Center, where the Federal Transit Administration found an understaffed, hostile work environment.
Wiedefeld said that on his first day on the job, he took a tour of the ROCC and had a town-hall meeting with its staffers, pledging to fix any unacceptable behavior system-wide.
He closed his appearance with a short speech.
“I hear your frustration, I hear your anger,” he said. “And that’s a good thing.
“I need that to get to where I want to be. It’s an opportunity. So keep up the pressure.” With that, Wiedefeld stepped off the stage—and was promptly swarmed by riders who wanted to talk just a little more.