Washington Metro’s Fast-Moving, Hard-Charging Transit Chief
Randy Clarke, the general manager of the Washington Metro, is a public-transit superfan with lots of support in D.C. How long will it last?
Randy Clarke, the general manager of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), is a fast-moving person. Everyone is eager to say this about him — usually as a compliment. “Very high motor,” says one member of WMATA’s board of directors. Like the Energizer Bunny, according to a former colleague. A podcast interviewer, apparently speaking off the cuff, once nicknamed him “Randy the Tornado.”
Clarke claims to begin working the moment he wakes up at 5 a.m. every day. He competes in marathons and triathlons. Since becoming GM at Metro last summer, he’s taken hundreds of rides on trains and buses, posing for selfies with fellow riders and tweeting through service disruptions like a devoted straphanger. He’s also helped put dozens more trains in service. Somehow he doesn’t drink coffee.
“This is an impossible job that’s also terrible,” says Tracy Hadden Loh, a D.C. Council appointee to WMATA’s board of directors, who helped select Clarke as general manager. “Finding someone who truly, actually wants to do it, and who has what it takes to be successful, is a big ask. And energy is a huge part of the answer to that.”
For Clarke, a public transit superfan, the stakes for both the D.C. region and the transit industry nationally are as high as can be. WMATA’s fiscal challenges predate the pandemic, but the losses in ridership brought on by COVID-19 have made them especially urgent, just as they have for other big-city transit systems. The health of D.C.’s Metro system is critical to the regional economy, but has much bigger consequences too: “Because we’re in the fishbowl,” Clarke says, Metro gets more national attention than most transit agencies.
A Wave of Crises
When Clarke left his last job, as CEO of CapMetro in Austin, WMATA was riding a small wave of crises. Ridership losses were just one of them: During July of 2022, the month he started, weekday ridership was just 39 percent of pre-pandemic levels on Metro trains and 71 percent on Metro buses. The previous fall, a train derailment took nearly 60 percent of WMATA’s train cars — the Kawasaki Rail-built 7000 series, the newest and most reliable cars in its fleet — out of service, leading to delays. WMATA’s last general manager, Paul Wiedefeld, bumped up his planned retirement by six weeks amid revelations that half of the system’s rail operators had lapsed safety certifications.
Clarke began his transit industry career in Boston, working as a consultant in transit safety and emergency management, and later serving as chief safety officer and deputy chief operating officer at the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. His credibility on safety issues was one of the reasons he was chosen for the job, board members say; he’s helped hold the agency to a necessarily high safety standard while constantly reminding people that public transit is among the safest ways to travel — exponentially safer than driving. He has pushed to have the 7000 series cars returned to service as quickly as possible.
“The biggest push that was needed, and that he’s delivered, was making the service good,” says Dan Malouff, an Arlington-based urban planner and board member at Greater Greater Washington. Rarely are Metro trains more than 10 minutes apart, and often headways are under five minutes, he says. “Honestly the service is better than it’s been in a long time.”
Transit Industry Enthusiast
Clarke, who grew up in Nova Scotia and studied public policy at graduate school in Maine, became interested in transit when he worked one summer as an intern for a tall ships festival in Portland, the state's biggest city. It was his job to make a transportation plan, organizing shuttles from half-a-dozen park-and-ride facilities to the city's downtown. He had no experience doing anything like that.
“I was just an intern working with another guy doing it. I just did it for the day — I kind of ran the day, not really knowing what I was doing,” Clarke says. “But I had to work with the cops, with traffic, with a bunch of other volunteers. We screwed some stuff up, we got a bunch right, and we moved like 20,000 or 30,000 people, which up there was a big deal.”
Partly it was the adrenaline of the day, he says, but also the efficiency of mass transit, and the realization that transportation is connected to everything else.
“And also it’s very community-oriented,” he says. “You get 40 people on a bus or a train after a soccer game or a football game or a special event, and people are happy. There’s kind of a familiarity and a common thing that people are into. That goes away the second someone goes and gets in an individual car.”
He has since become a consummate transit industry insider. As he was rising through the executive ranks at MBTA, he felt he wanted a broader view of the industry — financial, regulatory, policymaking — than a single agency could provide. He took a job as vice president of operations at the main transit industry group, the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), which connected him with a network of transit professionals around the country. He met his wife, Kimberley Sweeney, on a subway to a Red Sox game.
By all accounts, Clarke is a genuine lover of public transit, and riding the Metro on a near-daily basis has helped build his reputation, and Metro’s, in the region. WMATA board members say his knowledge of D.C.’s transit system blew the other candidates out of the water. Clarke had lived in the city during his time at APTA, but it was also clear that he’d studied before the interview, says Matt Letourneau, a WMATA board member and Loudoun County supervisor in Northern Virginia.
One recent day, Beth Osborne, director of the advocacy group Transportation for America, happened to be leaving an event where Clarke was speaking and both got on the train going the same direction. They got to talking, and suddenly the train came to a halt in the middle of a tunnel. It’s a fairly routine experience for transit riders, but Osborne says Clarke was immediately on the phone with operations trying to figure out what the disruption was. He’s also tried to focus on improving the details of the transit experience: working escalators, functional speakers, clean platforms.
“I don’t think you can truly understand those issues if you’re not a rider,” Osborne says.
Big Investments in Texas
In 2018, Clarke was recruited to be CEO of CapMetro in Austin, a comparatively small transit system with 83 bus routes and just one, lightly used commuter rail line. Part of the charge was to help win a big public investment in transit expansion at the ballot box, something that Austinites had rejected twice in previous years. Austin is “a city that held on to the small-town mentality a little too long,” says Steve Adler, the former mayor. But it has begun to rethink its identity over the last decade, as the metro population has exploded, downtown development has boomed and tech companies have migrated from Silicon Valley.
Transit was a missing piece of the city’s transformation. On a literal level, the service was simply lacking — there weren’t enough buses and trains to move people reliably to and from their jobs. But on another level, the lack of a robust transit system was a lingering indictment of Austin’s small-town identity, out of step with its new image. A rail map is a powerful symbol of urbanity — an icon reproduced on the beanies, hoodies, lapel pins and tattoos of big-city dwellers the world over — and Austin didn’t have one.
“People want to see something like that,” Clarke said recently, pointing to a poster of the D.C. Metro map on the wall in his office. “They want to see a vision that they can buy into.”
“Anybody that knows Randy knows he’s an extremely strong personality, and I think that was very critical to getting Project Connect passed,” says Bill McCamley, executive director of Transit Forward, an independent nonprofit that works with CapMetro and the Austin Transit Partnership to push the project forward.
There were other aspects of Clarke’s work in Austin that won over local leaders. A few months after Clarke began as CEO, CapMetro finalized a redesign of its bus network. Travis County Commissioner Jeff Travillion, a member of CapMetro’s board, voted against the redesign, partly because in its effort to combine routes and maximize the efficiency of the network, it removed 12 bus lines from his precinct. Travillon says Clarke worked with him over the next four years to make new transit and infrastructure investments in the parts of Austin that had routes cut. He was also impressed in the executive team that Clarke assembled, and the fact that he hired several of the other candidates who’d competed with him for the top job at CapMetro.
“That was one thing that made me really like him,” Travillion says. “He didn’t fear having strong people around him.”
He left others with a bad taste in their mouths. Alex Karner, a professor in transportation planning at the University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture and an ex officio member of the Project Connect Community Advisory Committee, says the vision for the project was built from the beginning around appealing to future riders with a “world-class” light rail system. Clarke didn’t prioritize the needs of existing riders, Karner says, and his public engagement around the project was more like a polished sales pitch for a predetermined plan.
Project Connect eventually included important measures to offset the likelihood that it would hasten gentrification in some areas, like a $300 million anti-displacement fund. But those concessions were won despite Clarke’s disinterest in meeting with activists, says João Paulo Connolly, a member of the Austin Justice Coalition. Clarke “couldn’t have slammed the door harder in our face,” Connolly says. (Clarke responded to this claim in an emailed statement, saying, "I respectfully disagree that honest and direct engagement on Project Connect did not happen.")
Notably, Project Connect is still unbuilt, and in the years since the vote, the ambition of the plan has been pared back. That’s mostly because of pandemic-era cost inflation and supply chain issues that have made already-expensive transit projects that much costlier and forced agencies to cancel some projects altogether. But Connolly says Clarke and other leaders should have anticipated rising costs, especially given the long history of transportation projects failing to deliver what they’ve promised to communities.
“I believe that the Austin community learned real lessons under Randy Clarke’s leadership about overpromising with Project Connect, and I wish we had learned those lessons sooner,” Connolly says. “We could have prevented a lot of disappointment and anger … by being more grounded and realistic in our commitments to the community.”
A Uniquely Public Role
The job of a transit agency leader has three key components, says Hayley Richardson, director of communications for the New York-based TransitCenter. One is a public-facing component, which is especially important in Washington. Clarke has clearly excelled on that front during his first year at WMATA, she says. (Other leaders in D.C. give him good marks too: It isn’t clear whether Clarke is a genuine extrovert, says Loh, the board member, but he sure knows how to play one in public.)
Another aspect of the role is how the agency head works with the rest of the workforce, relates to blue-collar workers, elevates leaders internally and generally inspires a good organizational culture. It’s harder to know how Clarke has done on that front, Richardson says, though the agency has adopted smart policies like all-door bus boarding during his first year that may reflect ideas from a newly empowered staff.
The third part of a transit leader’s job is political. For the head of WMATA, it’s a particularly complex role. The agency is funded through a compact between Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia, which spreads accountability far and wide. Advocates say it takes a unique touch to relate to leaders in each of those places. When it comes to the fiscal cliff, many advocates give Clarke credit for being honest about the consequences of letting funding issues fester, and for pushing leaders to find a long-term, stable source of funding for Metro operations.
For the most part, Clarke is “exactly what Metro has needed,” says D.C. Councilmember Charles Allen, who is also vice chair of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. But his urgency around funding questions has occasionally hit a sour note. The doomsday service cuts that Clarke warned of earlier this year were “an empty threat” that the agency’s funding partners would never allow, Allen says. He remembers thinking: “If you need to get that out of your system, go ahead, but none of us believe that’s going to happen.” The next year will be critical in sorting out the agency’s funding issues.
“It’s really too soon to say how effective Randy will be at the external piece of his role,” says Loh. “But boy are we about to find out.”
Still, everyone acknowledges that while Clarke’s role is important, it's regional leaders who will ultimately decide how to address the fiscal problem. Clarke continues to remind the public that WMATA’s funding challenges are as old as the system itself. In his office, he pulled out a typewritten report from the Washington Center for Metropolitan Studies that was published in the late 1970s when Metro was first running rail service. The report warned that without a different funding regime, WMATA’s operating deficit could spin out of control, and could become “one of the gravest fiscal and political crises ever confronted by Washington.”
For his part, Clarke says he hopes he can be judged as part of a team, rather than as an individual leader. He has described being the GM of Metro as a “dream job,” and says he and his wife would be happy living in the Washington area for the rest of their lives. Still, transit agency leaders don’t last forever. Many who start out with lots of public support end up getting fired or forced to resign after a few years, Clarke acknowledges. (Though it doesn’t always end badly for them; Clarke’s predecessor, Paul Wiedefeld, is now the secretary of transportation for Maryland.)
Clarke compares a high-profile leadership role like his to an ice cube that begins melting the moment you start the job. After a year, he thinks the ice cube is about the same size. He has four years left on his contract, and says he hopes to be in good enough standing to stay beyond that.
“I’m not chasing something else,” he says. “I really think the organization is fantastic. We’ve built a great team, and I want to see this team have a long time to flourish and move things forward.”