D.C. Area Transit Chief Facing 'the Test of His Life'

Trouble has dogged Metro's general manager, John B. Catoe Jr.
Trouble has dogged Metro's general manager, John B. Catoe Jr. (By Alfredo Duarte Pereira -- El Tiempo Latino)
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By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 24, 2009

The news out of Metro over the past three months has been almost all bad: eight passengers killed in a train crash, four workers fatally injured on the job, an inexplicable rise in track suicides and the specter of major budget cuts at a time when the system needs to be modernized. As Metro board Chairman Jim Graham put it, "We're having the heavens open, and all manner of demons have been unleashed."

For Metro General Manager John B. Catoe Jr., the torment is especially acute. The 62-year-old career transportation executive is steering the agency through its most difficult period.

Metro board members said he has their full support, and they almost certainly will grant him a new contract soon. The board is expected to discuss his contract at its regular meeting Thursday. Yet after months of trouble and the resulting delays in rail service, some angry riders are calling for his resignation, and a union activist is circulating a no-confidence petition.

"This is the test of his life," Graham said.

Catoe, the son of a D.C. cabdriver, came to Metro after establishing his transportation credentials on the West Coast. Running the second-busiest rail system in the country is the apex of a 30-year career. He doesn't want another job.

"I will stick with this job," said Catoe, who was the second-ranking executive at the Los Angeles transit agency when Metro hired him.

That there is little reason to believe he won't get the chance says as much about the history of the position, the funding issues and the difficulty in finding a replacement as it does about Catoe.

When he was hired, Catoe became Metro's fourth general manager in two years. Regional politics and the small pool of qualified candidates made the hiring difficult, and the agency suffered through a prolonged leadership vacuum.

No one says the job is easy. The agency complains of chronic underfunding, and about 30 percent of Metro employees, including hard-to-replace mechanics, are eligible to retire by next year. Metro's chief executive also has to work with a governing board of 12 officials who represent two states and the District, each of which has different politics and priorities.

"This place has chewed up a lot of people," said former congressman Tom Davis, a Northern Virginia Republican and a Metro critic who led efforts on Capitol Hill to obtain more federal funding. "Catoe has restored a sense of firm control. He's gotten finances under control, put a tight rein on the staff, oriented the thing."

To get the financial help the agency needs, transit analysts said, Metro must show that it has competent management and the confidence of the state and local governments that fund it. Members have said they will need to consider a fare increase because of a $144 million operating budget shortfall projected for the coming fiscal year.

Congress is poised, for the first time, to provide the cash-strapped agency with up to $150 million in capital funds next year for new rail cars and much-needed safety improvements.

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