Randy Clarke charmed Metro riders in his first year — but challenges still lie ahead Clarke has won over riders and public officials alike during his first year leading Metro, but navigating a budding budget crisis will test his leadership in year two.
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Randy Clarke charmed Metro riders in his first year — but challenges still lie ahead

Metro General Manager Randy Clarke is the transit agency's biggest cheerleader, but the challenges will only get bigger in the next few years. Tyrone Turner/WAMU/DCist hide caption

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Tyrone Turner/WAMU/DCist

When Randy Clarke was hired as Metro's General Manager a year ago, some people wondered if a guy who ran just one commuter rail line and less than 100 bus routes in Austin, Texas could cut it at Metro, the struggling second-largest transit agency in the country. But after a year at the helm, Clarke is so popular, he's getting asked for selfies in the checkout line at Trader Joe's.

"They come up to me and say, 'Hey you're Randy Clarke, right?" Clarke told WAMU during a one-on-one interview. "I'm in shorts and a t-shirt and have juice and bread or something and we take a selfie as 12 other people are in line."

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The size of the job – and its visibility – is a big change from Austin, Texas, where Clarke led the CapMetro transit system that ran less than 400 buses and a single rail line.

Now, Clarke, 46, heads Metro – a 12,000-person organization that runs 1,500 buses and 129 miles of rail.

In the process, he's achieved D.C. cult celebrity status for his passionate enthusiasm for the job and Twitter train selfies.

Metro riders and Clarke both know that he's not stepping into a system that simply needs caretaking. The challenges that face the agency are numerous, and range from frustrating (a ridership that seems to have forgotten simple societal norms like refraining from smoking on trains) to existential (Clarke will need to help Metro overcome a $750 million budget shortfall next year).

But he approaches work as if joy and diligence alone can make Metro's troubles go away: he's developed a reputation as a public official who listens, follows through, and is a relentless booster of D.C.'s public transit systems. Transparency and engagement are some of his strongest traits – a stark contrast to an agency that was previously cloistered, defensive, and at times not aware of what was going on in different silos.

Metro is plagued with issues that predate Clarke, including recovering from the financial fallout of decades of allowing the system to fall into disrepair, pandemic loss of ridership, and a derailment that sidelined most of Metro's trains for more than a year.

Now trains are arriving nearly every four to six minutes downtown throughout the day. Metro is undertaking the first bus network redesign project in 50 years. Customer satisfaction surveys show a 16-point surge to 84% in a year. And Clarke's impact can be seen in more concrete ways as well: he's increased the heights of fare gates to cut down on fare evasion and changed the 8000-series trains to open-gangway style cars to make more room for passengers.

He's gained near-universal praise for his first year at the helm, getting kudos for his exuberance, his communication and engagement style, and using the system daily – he's personally taken 600 trips so far.

Reddit posts applauding his work on the D.C. subreddit leave some wondering if they're some sort of psyop. The headlines include: "Just my personal opinion but Randy Clark has been killing it as Metro's General Manager!" and "Some Praise for Randy Clarke" and "WMATA has been on fire ever since Randy Clarke took over as GM! Running 1-2 Minute Headways yesterday."

D.C. Councilmember and chair of the transportation committee Charles Allen says Clarke has done what's needed in year one.

"(He's) rebuilt rider confidence and the excitement around Metro," Allen said.

Paul Skoutelas, CEO of the American Public Transit Association, says Clarke's "relentless focus on WMATA's customers and employees is making a difference... I have every expectation that Randy and his team will deliver significant, sustainable improvements for riders and the communities served by WMATA."

Metro board chair Paul Smedberg was on the hiring committee that ultimately picked Clarke.

"It was important that we have someone who will be with the system for a while that can make dramatic changes and understanding that we have a challenge ahead of us," Smedberg said. "The board feels very positive about how the last year has gone."

Metro's largest union, ATU Local 689, which has sparred with general managers in the past over pay, privatizing service, sick leave, and more declined to comment for this story.

Asked to grade his performance, Clarke said the organization has had an "A" year but he says he always has room for improvement.

Randy Clarke loves to take a selfie, so we created a mocked-up scrapbook page of some of his selfies from his first year on the job. Graphic by Jordan Pascale, photos via @WMATAGM on Twitter/WAMU/DCist hide caption

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Graphic by Jordan Pascale, photos via @WMATAGM on Twitter/WAMU/DCist

Riding Transit Everywhere Has Earned Clarke Credibility

Clarke has taken a visible posture in leading, engaging with riders on Twitter and Instagram and sharing his rides, and highlighting workers.

He's posted 83 selfies from trains and buses with everyone from babies, to Metro workers and riders, to politicians, local athletes, and college mascots. His selfies also reveal what he's up to — visiting work sites in hard hats, heading to galas in a tux, or carrying home pizza for date nights with his wife. In some, he's grinning ear to ear. Other times, the tie is loose after a long day.

Clarke says riding transit isn't a publicity stunt for him.

"It's just how I live life," Clarke said. As to why that act has earned him so much credibility with riders? "I think there's a little bit of, like, 'eating your own food' or walking the talk... I think that matters a lot for people."

His cred also derives from the same fires that shape longtime Metro riders' traumas – in some cases, literally. In one case that Clarke mentioned, a rider deliberately set fire to a train seat and delayed the train on his way to an event with Sen. Chris Van Hollen from Maryland last September. But the majority of his 600-plus trips this year have been smooth.

Clarke said he's been on four or five rough bus experiences, and he remembers 10 or so train delays, most not awful. He said that his most memorable delay involved being stuck at Rosslyn after someone fleeing a robbery on the street went down into Metro and then into the tunnel. They were ultimately arrested, but it created a long delay.

On his way to a Board of Trade gala, a train stopped, so he and Chief Operating Officer Bryan Dwyer went to go see what was up. A woman experiencing homelessness had been pepper sprayed and was lying in the train doorway. The pair, both in tuxedos, helped her to the station entrance where an ambulance waited. Several people on the train gawked at the odd sight. "Don't worry, we're with Metro," Clarke recalled telling them.

And while he owns a car, he skips the driver's seat even on far-flung trips. He's been to early morning Montgomery County meetings in Rockville, Courthouse for Northern Virginia Transportation Commission meetings, chamber of commerce events at Wiehle-Reston, and dinners on Capitol Hill by bus.

But on every ride, his mind is at work.

"I see little things everywhere," he said, noting he is often texting staff, police, and others about issues. "I think people appreciate that the job is not just to solve big, big things like our fiscal issues – it's the day-to-day stuff that matters to them even more because that's what they feel every day.

"I think [they like] having an advocate in [their] corner."

Public officials that work with Clarke say he is driven, energetic, and seems to never quit. He says he worked 70-80 hours a week on average in the last year. While he's Metro's biggest cheerleader and most visible communicator, he says it's not about him.

"There is no 'General Manager savior,'" Clarke said. "If it's all about the GM, then the organization has failed and that's not the way I work internally and it's not the way I want the place to be.

"I might be on social media and might be the lead communicator and all that... that's great. But I don't run this organization [alone]... we have 12,000 colleagues that really work hard."

Metro General Manager Randy Clarke inspects the Northern Bus Garage construction project, which will become one of the first all-electric bus facilities for Metro, with board member Tracy Hadden Loh. Jordan Pascale/WAMU/DCist hide caption

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Jordan Pascale/WAMU/DCist

The State Of Metro

Clarke's first day at Metro was July 25, 2022, nine months after a derailment on the Blue Line that sidelined all of Metro's newest trains, the 7000-series trains that make up 60% of the fleet.

Metro was also trying to work its way out of the pandemic, with only 40% of regular train riders back on the system at this time last year. It's now back up to 60%.

Clarke also arrived at a time when workers were "beat down" as he describes it.

"If you work at a place and DCist, the Washington Post or whoever, every day runs a story that says how bad you are... at a certain point your morale... it's hard to drag yourself out of bed and go in there and give it your all, right?" he said. "So part of my number one focus is getting in and like bringing some pride back to the organization.

"We have the highest talent transit team I've ever seen in the industry."

His first Thanksgiving, he brought homemade cookies to the rail operations center and thanked the entire team over the radio for working the holiday.

"This team sacrificed everything to get us back," Clarke said recently.

Just a week after taking over, a cable fire on the Red Line near Dupont Circle delayed service for more than a day. In the past, Metro might have sent out a service alert and only addressed the situation in full if asked.

The same night, Clarke was down in the tunnel with crews surveying the damage and sending photos of the fried cables and an explanation of what happened (though the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission chastised some of the operational decisions during the incident).

"This level of communication is a significant upgrade," one person tweeted in reply.

He's also publicly tussled with the Metro's oversight body, the Metrorail Safety Commission, after they didn't approve as many trains as he wanted available in time to open the Silver Line extension. The back and forth grew so tense, Virginia's senators dragged in both parties to work out the issue. Then in January, Clarke held a press conference to protest another Safety Commission decision.

Meanwhile outside challenges like mental health issues, smoking and loud music on trains and buses, and crime in the community continue to dog riders.

On July 21st, Clarke was on WAMU's Politics Hour, where a rider asserted "There are increasing numbers of people with mental health problems and they take over the bus. They're yelling and screaming. They make it really very, very unpleasant."

Clarke insists that's a larger societal problem that Metro has had to deal with, but helping to manage that problem is one of Metro's top priorities. Metro has recently hired mental health crisis counselors for the first time and added more police to the system.

"We're a transportation organization. We don't do affordable housing. We don't do medical or health services. We don't do addiction services," he told the caller. "We are part of the community and we as a community need to figure out how to solve much bigger challenges that really are not Metro-centric, but they end up being connected to Metro."

Randy Clarke and public officials cut the ribbon at the Ashburn station on the Silver Line extension in November 2022. Tyrone Turner/WAMU/DCist hide caption

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Tyrone Turner/WAMU/DCist

The Good: New Stations, More Service

On Nov. 15, 2022, Clarke stuck his head out the window of a train arriving at a platform with 150 cheering people. The Silver Line extension, six new stations in Fairfax and Loudoun counties, were finally opening after years of delay

To celebrate, there was the usual fanfare and celebratory speeches by elected officials. U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg attended the ribbon cutting. But Clarke wanted to include Metro's most passionate fans – the rail fans, the kids and parents, and grandparents who love transit. So he opened the "Silver Ticket" contest to give those people a sneak peek.

A similar scene unfolded for the re-opening of the Yellow Line bridge and tunnel after a long nine-month closure. Clarke again gave contest winners a chance to preview the investment Metro was making, up-close. In May, Potomac Yard opened in Alexandria after months of delay. While Clarke came in at the tail end of these projects, the momentum has helped Metro.

All of a sudden, Clarke was Willy Wonka. He created seasonal train wraps for the holidays, cherry blossom season, Pride month, and more. He increased service 11 times in the last 12 months.

He's altered service patterns at Metro, adding more service throughout the day to serve more people. He also cut back the Yellow Line from Greenbelt to Mt. Vernon Square, which allowed running more trains to the underserved areas of the southern Green Line, a play that angered some in the populous U Street and Columbia Heights area, but Clarke says is a better move for equity, as it better serves D.C.'s Ward 8 and Prince George's County.

Clarke has overseen the addition of a new website for real-time arrival and a way to report problems, creating dashboards so riders can better monitor how the system is doing, shepherded Metro's first low-income fare system, and fixed the "ghost bus" problem and extended customer service hours.

WMATA General Manager Randy Clarke consoles Elisa Cunningham, Robert Cunningham's widow, after the burial service. Tyrone Turner/WAMU/DCist hide caption

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Tyrone Turner/WAMU/DCist

Tragedy Strikes Metro, Safety Concerns On The Rise

Clarke was in a meeting about public safety on Feb. 1 when he got the call that a man went on a rampage on a bus and then down into the Potomac Avenue station.

A gunman threatened a bus rider before running into the Metro station, taking a woman hostage down on the platform. Robert Cunningham, a 64-year-old power worker at Metro, tried to confront the attacker from behind but was shot and killed trying to save her life.

Clarke said it was his toughest day on the job.

"Hands down," he said. "That was a tragic day for Metro. He gave his life trying to defend someone."

Minutes after the call, he was on the way to the scene, later visiting Cunningham's wife and children as police notified the family of the murder.

"One thing I will take away from that is how hard that was, but also how amazing it was for his family and the organization to be shown the love and respect and gratitude by the region," Clarke said. Flowers and tributes were left at the station for days. "I think that touched a lot of people here pretty deeply."

Metro has dealt with a rise in crime over the past year, which the agency addressed by adding more police in stations, on trains, and in buses. The agency has also developed partnerships with local police to patrol stations during busy times, adding four mental health crisis counselors, and more yellow shirt "ambassadors" that add more presence and provide customer service in stations.

Six people have been killed in stations or buses in the past six months, including the victim of a robbery, a teen who was trying to run away from assailants, and Cunningham. Just Thursday night, a gun went off while two people argued at Fort Totten. A hired security officer fired back, wounding the gunman. More than 200 robberies have been committed on the system this year, through the end of June, twice last year's number in the same time period. Aggravated assaults are up 21%.

Clarke has had to speak on crime regularly as shootings and stabbings have come in waves. He's often said that gun crimes are an epidemic in America and that problems in society often flow into Metro because Metro is part of the community.

"We have a gun problem in America. That's not Metro's problem. We are impacted by that, but there are shootings all over the place in America ... And I'm tired of it," Clarke said after a series of shootings in December.

Under Clarke's watch, trespassers on the tracks have been one of Metro's biggest safety concerns with a few people getting hit and killed by trains. He eventually wants to add platform screen doors to the stations to prevent people from getting on the tracks.

Clarke insists that Metro is still safe and doing everything it can to reduce crime.

"The two things that make the system work: A busy system and more security," he said. "We're like a park... a busy park is a safe park and a park that people want to take their kids to or play in.

"The number one way to keep a (transit) system safe is running great service. Because that means people are not lingering and people are not upset. And there's less crime of opportunity or social disruption opportunity... At the end of the day, Metro can't control society."

Clarke also says the additional security staff and improved cameras help, saying that if you commit a crime on Metro you will be caught.

The new head of WMATA, Randy Clarke, visited the L'Enfant Plaza Metro station on his first day of work last July to talk to riders and Metro staff. Clarke talks with Delyse Dorsey of St. Mary's County, Maryland, as she waits for her train. Tyrone Turner/WAMU/DCist hide caption

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Tyrone Turner/WAMU/DCist

Biggest Challenges Lie Ahead

Many riders say they are cautiously optimistic that things are heading in the right direction. But Metro has long been plagued with deep systemic issues, and residents have been conditioned to expect track fires, trains without air conditioning, and sudden single-tracking. Deaths have shaken the system, too.

After a crash in 2009 that killed nine, Metro turned off its automatic operating system, even though it wasn't at fault. Clarke says it's time to bring it back. In 2015, a smoke incident killed one rider and almost triggered a federal takeover of the system because of the safety lapses.

"Transit systems are fragile no matter what," D.C. Councilmember Charles Allen said. "Any leader is one ride away from some type of crisis.

"So I think it's about how do you manage that crisis, how you communicate and lead through that crisis. And I think that's where Randy is in a really great position."

Del. Marc Korman, chair of the environment and transportation committee in Maryland's House of Delegates, says it's "very hard to tell what is going on within a large bureaucracy."

"In 2015, outgoing General Manager Richard Sarles was praised by the then-board for his work restoring a safety culture to Metro. A few days later, Carol Glover died (of smoke inhalation while a train was trapped near) L'Enfant Plaza."

The last General Manager, Paul Wiedefeld's, tenure was praised for undertaking the difficult task of shutting down large parts of the system to repair power cables and other maintenance.

Then in the fall of 2022, the derailment happened, and shortly after, train operators were found to be driving without safety recertifications. The combined issues led to Wiedefeld's sudden retirement from WMATA, though he was named in February by Gov. Wes Moore as Maryland's transportation secretary.

Del. Korman says Clarke is "prioritizing safe and reliable service with an ethos of continuing to try to do better instead of just standing pat the way things have always been done."

But there are structural challenges ahead.

Metro's rail ridership has taken a big hit with white-collar workers staying home, including the federal workforce. It is showing signs of rebounding. Last week, Metrorail had its highest weekday ridership since the pandemic began with nearly 2 million trips. But overall, ridership still sits at about 60% of pre-pandemic levels.

Metro has adjusted. It's running more service on off-peak, evenings, and weekends as the rush hour crowd has been lower than pre-pandemic.

"Saturday service now is great, and someone that works on Saturday should be equal to someone works on a Tuesday," Clarke said. "And someone that wants to get to health care in the middle of the day is important.

"Our world is different than it used to be. It used to be a very rush-hour, commuter-centric world. And I think we're much more democratic, if you will, from the point of view of people who work two part-time jobs or people that work nights and weekends. So I like the model that we're delivering."

Metro General Manager Randy Clarke and Board Chair Paul Smedberg listen to a question during a press conference. Jordan Pascale/WAMU/DCist hide caption

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Jordan Pascale/WAMU/DCist

Finding The Money To Survive

The next challenge will be finding operational funding for WMATA, which is the only large transit agency in the country that doesn't have dedicated funding. He'll have to negotiate a deal among Virginia, Maryland, D.C., and federal officials to close a $750 million budget gap next year. The gap is expected to grow in the coming years.

Allen said navigating the complicated politics of the region would be a big learning curve for anyone.

"He is working on that process and learned some things this year," Allen said.

Allan Fye, Director of Programs and Policy at the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission, says Metro will need to find savings and efficiencies in order to convince the jurisdictions to buy in.

"Look under every couch cushion... leave no stone unturned," Fye said. He encouraged Clarke to allow NVTC to help navigate the politics in Virginia, saying each state requires a different touch.

Robert Puentes of the Eno Center for Transportation says transit agencies across the country are dealing with the same funding challenges, but Puentes said he thinks Clarke has positioned WMATA for success.

"Randy and WMATA have been refreshingly open and transparent about the looming operating budget," Puentes says.

The funding issue will be ongoing for at least the next nine months to a year. If funding doesn't materialize, Metro would have to cut service by about 60%. But Clarke says he's optimistic the region will step up.

"Do you envision no Metro to the Pentagon? Seems to me that's a national security issue, let alone Capitol Hill, the Supreme Court... Do you envision no rail service to the Silver Line, to Dulles Airport that we just spent as a region 40 years to make happen? Got a feeling that United Airlines and others are probably thinking that's not a great idea. How would we perform at the inauguration, which is only a year and a half away without Metro? How are we going to host World Pride in 2025, which is a gigantic economic event for this region? And cherry blossoms? Without Metro, those things don't happen.

"So I am bullish that we'll get there."

Clarke has four years left on his contract, getting paid $485,000 annually, and is eligible for an annual bonus of up to $48,500 a year (the board says they are still evaluating Clarke's first year and have not decided on the bonus). He says he'd stay long-term if the board wants him back.

"To me, this is kind of the dream job in so many ways," Clarke said. "A very, very difficult job – I'll be perfectly honest – but I love every moment of the opportunity.

"I'm happy to think that it could be longer."

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