Paul J. Wiedefeld used to run BWI Marshall Airport. Then he oversaw Baltimore's bus and rail system. Then he ran BWI again. Now he faces a tougher challenge with the Washington Metro.

Paul J. Wiedefeld used to run BWI Marshall Airport. Then he oversaw Baltimore's bus and rail system. Then he ran BWI again.

Now he faces a tougher challenge.

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On the heels of his ouster at BWI last summer, Wiedefeld was hired six months ago to reverse the sagging fortunes of Washington's once-proud Metro system — beset in recent years by fatal safety lapses and abysmal service. This month, he launched a repair plan that will mean a year of inconvenience and hardship for riders.

The final plan, which calls for work to begin June 4, was released Thursday. And on Friday, Wiedefeld fired 20 managers, part of a pledge to restructure the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.

As the transit authority's general manager, the 60-year-old Wiedefeld faces the unenviable task of winning back the confidence of riders who have grown cynical about the safety and reliability of a system vital to the day-to-day operations of the capital region.

Former BWI executive selected to lead Washington metro

Paul J. Wiedefeld, the former veteran chief executive of Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, was picked Thursday to head the struggling Washington Metro system, officials said.

An estimated 281,000 Marylanders ride Metrorail each workday, including about 37,000 who come from jurisdictions other than Montgomery and Prince George's counties. More than $450 million of state taxpayers' money will go toward the system next year.

"Right now, WMATA is the biggest challenge in the transit industry, perhaps even in [all of] transportation," said John D. Porcari, a former Maryland transportation secretary.

Porcari, Wiedefeld's boss when he ran the Maryland Transit Administration and BWI, said WMATA's board made the right choice when they hired the soft-spoken Baltimore native for the $397,500-a-year job last November.

"Paul won't rest until he finds all the problems ... and truly establishes a safety culture," Porcari said.

Two months ago, Wiedefeld underscored that priority when he shut down the system for 24 hours on a workday to conduct an emergency safety check after an electrical fire in a tunnel.

"When we shut it down for a day and discussed shutting it down for weeks and months on end, it got everybody's attention," said Washington City Councilman Jack Evans, chairman of the Metro board.

Wiedefeld decided not to shut down the full system or whole lines for an extended period, but the yearlong program he embarked upon this month will reduce service to allow crews to rebuild aging tracks, electrical systems, signals and other infrastructure.

"For the track, what we've basically done with the plan is condense three years of work into one," Wiedefeld said.

Criticism of the plan, known as SafeTrack, has been muted because the need for action is well known.

"There's a general acceptance that there needs to be a change, so I think people will show some patience," said Del. Marc Korman, a Montgomery County Democrat who co-chairs the General Assembly's WMATA work group.

In this Jan. 13, 2015 file photo, a subway train arrives at the L'Enfant Metro Station in Washington.
In this Jan. 13, 2015 file photo, a subway train arrives at the L'Enfant Metro Station in Washington. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP)

But Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District of Columbia's delegate in Congress, said she plans to question Wiedefeld and other WMATA officials when they come before a House panel on whether the one-year track rehabilitation timetable is "sufficient to meet acceptable safety standards."

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So far, Metro riders seem to be giving Wiedefeld the benefit of the doubt — though some say fares ought to be reduced until work is completed.

"Even though it's painful for everybody, they've got to do it," said Orange Line rider Brent Bozarth, 51, an Arlington, Va., resident who works in New Carrollton. "And they've got to get the people's trust back. They've lost their trust."

Gov. Larry Hogan, who dismissed Wiedefeld at BWI, gave a noncommittal response when asked last week whether he backed the WMATA chief's plan.

"We believe that safety is the No. 1 concern when it comes to the Metro. WMATA has been woefully behind in that regard," he said.

Wiedefeld's moves came as no surprise to people familiar with his record as leader of the Maryland Transit Administration from 2007 to 2009.

In November 2008, Wiedefeld shut down the northern part of Baltimore's light rail line because a computerized braking system was causing trains' wheels to crack. Thousands of riders were inconvenienced over two weeks of disruptions, but Wiedefeld kept diverting riders to buses until the agency found a solution.

During an interview last week, Wiedefeld pulled out a picture of a damaged wheel from that system that he keeps in his briefcase.

"It's always a constant reminder to me that you have to put safety first," he said.

Metro has been brought under the close supervision of the Federal Transit Administration. A woman was killed and 84 passengers were hospitalized last year when a train filled with smoke. And U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said he seriously considered shutting down the entire system after an electrical fire in the Federal Center Southwest station this month.

Gov. Hogan fires Wiedefeld as head of BWI

Hogan replaces Wiedefeld as head of BWI

Foxx warned that he could still halt Metro operations if WMATA does not follow federal directives to reduce power usage and the number of cars per train. The federal agency also directed Metro to speed up Wiededeld's original timetable for making certain "urgent" track repairs.

Maryland has a significant stake in Wiedefeld's performance. The state — along with Virginia, the District of Columbia and the federal government — is a signatory to the compact that governs the Washington transit system. Maryland's combined contribution to WMATA's capital and operating expenses will be $477 million next year.

Daraius Irani, director of the Regional Economic Studies Institute at Towson University, said the health of the Washington Metro has implications for the Baltimore region. Because of Metro, Irani said, many Baltimore residents can commute to Washington's Union Station and catch the subway to the private companies, nonprofits and federal agencies where they work.

"It allows the MARC train to be as successful as it is," he said.

Wiedefeld is one of those riders. Though he keeps an apartment in Washington, his home is still in Towson. He said that on many mornings, he catches the 5:50 a.m. train from Baltimore's Penn Station to Washington's Union Station, where he takes the Metro to the headquarters of WMATA, which serves roughly 700,000 Metrorail and 500,000 Metrobus riders daily.

For 14 years, he was a Maryland transportation official, overseeing BWI from 2002 to 2005 and again from 2009 until 2015, when Hogan asked him to leave. Hogan replaced Wiedefeld with Ricky D. Smith Sr., who had been head of Cleveland's airport since 2006.

According to WMATA board members, members of the Hogan administration did not try to block Wiedefeld's selection and spoke highly of his abilities during the selection process. Board members said they were told his firing at BWI had more to do with politics than performance. Wiedefeld said he wouldn't have sought the job without a green light from the Hogan administration.

Considered the crown jewel of U.S. transit systems when it opened in the 1970s, the subway has deteriorated over the decades because of deferred maintenance, among other issues.

From its inception, the subway has had a significant flaw: It's a two-track system, with few side tracks and no room in its tunnels for expansion. If something goes wrong with one track, the system has to run trains both ways on a single track — slowing the trains and complicating operations.

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Paul Wiedefeld, general manager of Washington Metro Area Transit Authority, during an interview in his office. Wiedefeld talked about the challenges of repairing the aging metro system after years of deferred maintenance.
Paul Wiedefeld, general manager of Washington Metro Area Transit Authority, during an interview in his office. Wiedefeld talked about the challenges of repairing the aging metro system after years of deferred maintenance. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

Since it opened, Metro has been the target of critical reports by the National Transportation Safety Board. After a string of fatal accidents over the years, the system's problems became national news in 2009 when eight passengers and an operator died after two trains collided on the Red Line near Fort Totten. The safety board found that the crash occurred when a track circuit failed. The next passenger fatality on a Washington Metro train occurred in January 2015, when a Yellow Line train leaving L'Enfant Plaza station filled with smoke

Meanwhile, deferred maintenance took a toll on the system's reliability. On-time performance, generally above 90 percent four years ago, fell to 84 percent last year. Ridership has dropped 5 percent since 2010.

Metro board members said they firmly support Wiedefeld's approach.

"The system is at close to a breaking point," said Mortimer Downey, who represents the federal government on the board. He said Wiedefeld is trying to make changes "so it can last for another 40 years."

Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton contributed to this article.

mdresser@baltsun.com

twitter.com/michaeltdresser

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