Cody Pfanstiehl, 90; Enthusiastic Spokesman of D.C. Transit Authority

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 4, 2007

Cody Pfanstiehl, 90, the longtime spokesman for Metro whose consistently upbeat view of the capital's subways and buses eased many a commuter's ire, died of pneumonia Feb. 1 at Holy Cross Hospital. He lived in Silver Spring.

Mr. Pfanstiehl (pronounced FAN-steel) cheerily steered the Washington area through strikes, fires, derailments, snow delays, jammed Farecards and the time Metrorail's tunnel-boring "mole" machine got stuck in a hole beneath Yuma Street NW.

"Who else has an $8 billion set of trains to play with?" he once asked.

He led countless hard-hat tours of the subway-in-the-making, stoutly defended the non-intuitive station names and touted the gee-whiz engineering marvels of what he called "the world's deepest subway." Ever genial, often exuberant and affectionately dubbed the "resident Pollyanna" of public transit, Mr. Pfanstiehl, in his 21 years as the public face of Metro, did his best to accentuate the positive, even in the face of challenges such as the nearly total breakdown of the bus system after the 1976 fireworks on the Mall.

"Rush hour is going to be lousy and whammed-up," he warned commuters in 1982, a few days after a jetliner crashed into the 14th Street Bridge, a Metro train derailed underground and a record-breaking cold spell set in. "We still have the weather whammy and the 14th Street Bridge whammy and now this rail whammy. . . . We are triple-whammied."

It wasn't always easy to be the public face of the transit system, especially after Congress ordered Metro to take over four failing bus systems in 1973. The spaghetti snarl of 750 routes, striking drivers and buses with broken lifts challenged his optimism. But most often, he was a glass-half-full kind of guy.

"The flood," he said of a 1977 underground leak, "had a Noah and Johnstown popular appeal to the press. The water was 18 inches."

In 1979, when a Red Line train took off from the Rhode Island Avenue Metro station without its driver, but with a full load of passengers, Mr. Pfanstiehl said it was under "complete automatic control" at all times, stopping at several stations, although its doors did not open. A passenger eventually jimmied the operator's cab door with a barrette, stopped the train and released its passengers.

"At every second, the train was doing what it was supposed to do," Mr. Pfanstiehl explained. "The only problem was that there was no human being at the controls to open the doors."

Mr. Pfanstiehl even managed to justify taking balloons away from children who attended the ceremony celebrating the opening of the Orange Line.

"For starters," he told a Washington Post columnist, "Metro didn't supply the balloons. They were supplied by a citizens' association.

"Second, there is no rule that says balloons can't be taken aboard trains. However," he went on, "it is our responsibility to discourage anything that might distract people from giving their full attention to the arrival of a train at 50 miles an hour. Can you picture the danger that would be inherent in a balloon getting loose near the edge of a crowded platform as a train came whizzing in?"

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