Jack Potter of airports authority faces challenges, but also great promise

September 25, 2011

For months, a bitter debate engulfed Northern Virginia over where to build a new Metro station at Dulles International Airport, part of the second phase of a 23-mile rail line intended to stretch into Loudoun County.

Two months after a decision to place the stop above ground and save hundreds of millions of dollars, there is still no definitive plan for paying for and building the project. Representatives from local jurisdictions, Virginia and the U.S. Transportation Department, plus top executives from the airports authority and Metro, are still trying to hammer out an agreement.

Enter John E. “Jack” Potter.

Potter, 56, was hired this summer as president and chief executive of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which oversees the mega-mega-construction of the Dulles rail line and operates the Dulles and Reagan National airports.

Since taking on the job, Potter said he has spent much of his time meeting staff, board members and local officials and learning how the agency runs.

But Potter took over the airports authority during a fractious time.

The authority’s board has been embroiled in the Dulles rail fight and at odds with Virginia politicians, who have questioned its transparency and sought more representation on the panel. The authority also faces a mountain of debt and dim prospects in the near term for growth in air travel, one of its revenue sources.

“He’s been able to calm the board down and bring together the staff,” said former Virginia congressman Tom Davis, a panel member. “This is a big business, and he has experience running a big operation. He knows how to handle a board and give a reasonable option on situations.”

Potter oversees about 1,400 employees and a nearly $2 billion annual budget. The airports authority has roughly $5 billion in long-term debt. Potter said he’s concerned that the authority is “highly leveraged” from doing major construction.

Dulles, for example, has been engaged in capital projects for several years, including the opening of an underground passenger screening area, the expansion of the international arrivals area and the construction of a $1.5 billion underground tram system. The board pays for much of its construction through the sale of bonds, passenger fees and federal grant programs.

Given the economy, MWAA hasn’t seen rapid growth recently in the number of passengers. Potter said he wants to find other sources of revenue, such as new opportunities for concessions or businesses at the airport.

“We’ve seen a flattening in the number of passengers,” Potter said. “That’s where we get our revenue. . . . We can pay our mortgage and bills, but we have to be judicious about our future capital investments. We have to wait for the economy to recover.”

New field of study

The board hired Potter in June after an 11 to 2 vote. He replaced James E. Bennett, who served 14 years in the job.

Potter, a Bronx native, is the son of a mail carrier. He started his career as a postal clerk in New York in the late ’70s and most recently was the Postal Service’s postmaster general. He earned a bachelor’s degree in economics from Fordham University and a master’s at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Potter retired from the Postal Service in December. He has no experience running airports or building a transit system, but his supporters are quick to note that the Postal Service regularly deals with large-scale air transport.

Among his priorities, he said, is helping get the Dulles rail line “done at the least possible cost and giving the best possible service.” The first phase of the Dulles rail line is under construction and is expected to be completed in late 2013.

Sharon Bulova (D), chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, said she’s impressed with how much Potter has “soaked up” in learning about the Dulles project and being involved in the complex rail line negotiations.

“He was very much aware of Fairfax County’s contribution to the project, and he was open to having a really constructive discussion of all of the funding issues,” Bulova said. “He had a very good grasp of where everyone was coming from. He was receptive, understanding, open-minded and constructive.

“He’s a person of stature who seems ready to speak up and disagree if he feels differently,” she said. “I think he’s a strong character.”

A plan of empowerment

Those traits might prove useful to get the second phase of the Dulles project moving. Potter said now is an “opportune time for low interest rates.”

“This is the time to go out and complete the construction of this project,” he said. “The more time it takes to get underway, the more it is going to cost.”

Charles Snelling, chairman of the airports authority, said Potter is “reality-oriented,” which serves him well in the Dulles talks.

“He gets to the numbers and the facts,” Snelling said. “He doesn’t argue emotionally.He has an ability to be direct and open without being offensive. . . . He doesn’t mince words.”

In managing the staff of the board, Snelling said, Potter has made it clear to his employees that he has given them the “authority, responsibility and accountability” to do their jobs well.

His motto, according to Snelling: “You’re good managers. Make good decisions and be able to defend them.”

Dana Hedgpeth is the Washington Post’s lead reporter in covering the Metro rail and bus systems in the D.C. region and the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority (WMATA) that runs them.
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