Running a transit agency in the seat of the nation's government is a privilege and a terrible responsibility. So says Richard A. White, the general manager and chief executive of the Washington Area Metropolitan Transit Authority (WMATA). "I would venture to say that this institution is one of the most prestigious transit systems in the world — operating in one of the complex environments in the world," he says.
White has been at the helm of WMATA since 1996 and recently signed a 71/2-year contract extension that will take him through June 2009. He is responsible for the operation of the region's Metrorail, Metrobus and Metroaccess (paratransit) systems and oversees 9,400 employees, a $750 million operating budget and a $250 million annual capital improvement program.
One of the busiest managers in the transit industry, White also contributes much time and energy to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA). He serves as secretary/treasurer of APTA's executive committee and is a member of the board of directors. He recently took time to meet with METRO Editor Steve Hirano to discuss key issues facing the nation's fourth-largest transit operation.
What security enhancements have you made since September 11 of last year?
Richard White: First of all, we were fortunate that we were a well-prepared organization going into September 11. On that day our training, preparation and coordination were put to the test, and I think the organization performed admirably. But you always find that there are more things you could do. It's really a perpetual process to stay on top of this issue.
We've done a number of things that range from low cost to high cost. On the low cost side, we actually instituted a training and awareness program that reaches to every level of the organization. All employees have received training on how to have a sense of personal responsibility and awareness to their environment when they're in the transit system so they can provide assistance to our front-line employees. We've also educated our customers, much in the same manner, to increase their level of awareness of their environment and to be on the lookout for certain types of things.
We've done the usual risk assessments and participated in the FTA's [Federal Transit Administration's] risk assessments. As a result, we've discovered some things that we need to do to largely target-harden some areas of vulnerability. I was pleased to hear the FTA's assessment that we were about three to five years ahead of most everybody else in the country in terms of our readiness.
We did get some special direct-appropriate money from the Congress. We got $39 million in one of the defense supplemental bills and $10 million that came directly from the executive branch. With that $49 million, we're in the process of putting security devices so that we can detect unauthorized entry into our yards and facilities and into the vulnerable areas of our infrastructure where there might be some type of public access.
We've also put some new screening procedures into this building [WMATA headquarters in Washington, D.C.] and added some resistant shielding on our glass windows. We've got eight additional trained dogs for bomb detection. We've now got 18 trained dogs, which I've found to be very effective in the security arena.
We've added some target-hardening, asset-protection strategies. We're putting an AVL [automatic vehicle location] system on our buses. We're one of the few transit agencies that didn't have an AVL system. We're putting 100 security cameras on buses. We're also putting in some redundant communications capabilities. We're also buying breathing apparatus for 5,000 front-line employees and some of the most sophisticated types of protective equipment for our police department.
You've also added chemical sensors to your subways, haven't you?
White: Yes, going into September 11 we had already been studying for a couple of years with the Department of Energy and the Department of Transportation a chemical sensor called Protect. This was our police chief's initiative. He recognized with the sarin gas release in Japan that the whole world order was really changing, particularly affecting the vulnerability of transit systems. It's always a double-edged sword being here in Washington, but one of the positive sides of the double-edged sword is that you develop relationships with various parts of the federal government. Through his channels, he was able to get some federal interest in a defense technology transfer application of a chemical sensor that the military used. We were the first ones chosen to use it in a civilian application. So in our subway environment, there is a tremendous amount of engineering modeling that had to be done to predict air circulation and movement. We are now in the process of expanding it to 14 of our underground stations. We will have a capability that no one else in the world has.
Although I can't discuss this in great detail, we've also got some work activity going on with the federal government related to biological and radiological capabilities. My sense is that now the rest of the country and the world has a great deal of interest in the outcome of this chemical sensor program. I know that Boston and Chicago are interested. Many of the large urban systems are chomping at the bit to gain access to a funding source that would allow these to be added to their systems.
Have you looked at plans to help evacuate the city in the event of a disaster?
White: We've been working through our regional council of governments, which is a collection of all the local governments in the metropolitan area. Inside the council of governments is the transportation planning board, which is the metropolitan planning organization. There has been an awful lot of activity going on. This region is probably the most advanced of all regions, save New York. Its regional coordination has been put under the microscope, from water and energy and public health and transportation — all the essential functions that the public depends upon.
Our region is writing its evacuation plan. It's not done yet, but it's in motion. In the near future, we will at least have such a document, which will go a long way to at least understanding how the region reacts to an extreme condition and what the overall strategy will be in terms of how you move people, where you move people and what you do with them. I think everyone is acutely sensitized to the vulnerability of the region to an attack.
Are the plans specific to the type of attack?
White: They're still in the early stages of planning, but they will probably come up with four different types of scenarios, including one in which Metro would be impacted and basically out of commission for some period. A lot of people say, "If the roads go down, we'll just use transit." But, first of all, we have capacity limitations right now. Second of all, what if we're impacted? So we have to think through those issues. Here in Washington, traffic congestion is bad enough on a good day. You can only imagine what would happen if something on a large scale would take place.
The nation's capital makes a tempting target.
White: Right. This is the seat of the nation's government. One of the difficulties we've had is bringing the feds to the table, despite the fact that they are the region's largest employer. They employ 13% of the regional workforce. Interestingly, 47% of our peak-period riders are federal employees. So we're trying to get the federal government to recognize that they need to have greater participation given that we serve their employees and service the federal government itself. We're slowly bringing them along.
How was ridership impacted by the September 11 attacks?
White: Ridership is still increasing. We've not lost riders, but the rate of growth has slowed. We had two phenomenal years in fiscal year 2000 and 2001 where we had 6% to 8% annual ridership growth. Last year, our system ridership grew a little over 2%. Our peak period ridership maintained steady, but the discretionary ridership, off-peak and weekend, is where we suffered. Initially, it was linked to the fact that the whole hospitality industry took a nosedive in Washington, D.C., particularly because Reagan National Airport was closed down for such an extended period. The hospitality industry is only now climbing out of a hole and coming back. I think we'll see the re-establishment of some growth rates in discretionary ridership.
What are you hearing from your riders in regard to safety and security?
White: There is a sense that they would like to see more uniformed police officers. To that end, we're creating permanent posts staffed with officers at our high-volume transfer stations. About 60% of our rail customers transfer, and most of them transfer at one of the main stations, so the chance of them seeing a police officer is greatly enhanced if we have a physical post in those transfer locations. That increases the public's perception that they see more police officers.
Would you say that one of the most effective methods of providing service information to your customers during the days after September 11 was through WMATA's Website?
White: Yes, we had overwhelmingly positive response from our customers. We kept them updated on the status of our systems. It's like a one-stop shopping center when there is something going on. We're toying with the idea of moving the Website operation to a remote location.
What are some of the other technological innovations going on at WMATA?
White: We think the smart card is the wave of the future. It's one of the most powerful instruments that we have. It's accepted on regional rail systems and we're doing tests in buses as well. It's pretty seamless. We're trying to find different ways to exploit the card. We're doing a demo program with the GSA [General Services Administration] where the card is used for building access and as a federal ID card. Given that there are about 300,000 Washington, D.C.-based federal employees, that's a big marketplace and we're looking for some sort of broader relationship with the federal government where the smart card becomes a ubiquitous, multipurpose card for their employees.
What are some of WMATA's greatest challenges over the next few years?
White: We've identified four basic challenges. The first one is to rehab the system. The rail system is more than 25 years old. The bus system was given to us almost as an afterthought, after the four major operators failed in the region. Our assets have been aging significantly, and we have not been recapitalizing the physical plant at a rate that's necessary to keep the plant in good repair because the amount of money we need is significant. When I got here our capital budget was $110 million per year. We're up at $250 million to $260 million now, and we have to go up to $450 million to keep the physical plant in a state of good repair. There's a series of ramp-ups that we're asking people to fund, but we don't have financial commitments in place. There's general recognition that it needs to be done, but we don't have financial commitments in place, and that's really our first priority.
Secondly, now we have capacity problems because we've had significant ridership growth. We haven't been able to keep pace in our rolling stock and our support systems, both bus and rail. We can't seem to buy buses and railcars fast enough to keep pace with the growing demand and our system is getting very, very crowded.
The third one is that we do know that we need to expand our system and that there should be more fixed guideway in the region. Some of it should be heavy rail, but in a fair amount of the corridors where heavy rail doesn't make sense, we should be moving to light rail, trolley or bus rapid transit technologies. We're now trying to seek political consensus on an expansion program now that we've finished building the 103-mile system, which took 30 years and $9 billion to complete. Now that the journey is finished, there is a future rail network that we need to consider building.
On top of all those things, there is the general issue of making sure that we have the organizational capability to meet our mission. With 10,000 employees, and there are things that we need to do with our human resources and business systems to ensure that we're operating as a good business and that we have good training and development programs for our employees.