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Metro Chief Is Facing 'The Test of His Life'

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.

Removing Catoe, whose three-year contract expires in January, would also be politically sensitive, board members have said, because some of the same members hired him.

Three days after the June 22 Red Line crash, the board planned to renew Catoe's contract, which pays him $375,000 in salary and housing allowance, Metro spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said.

But Catoe wanted to focus on the accident, which killed eight passengers and a train operator, so the board agreed to delay talks until the fall. Since the crash, his backers have gone to great lengths to show their support. At a routine groundbreaking Sept. 16 for a Metrobus garage, about two dozen officials, including board members and D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D), gave Catoe a sustained standing ovation.

"Before you throw the pilot out of the plane, you've got to have evidence that says, 'Hey, your leadership is so flawed that it's contributing to the problems,' " said Graham, a D.C. Council member (D-Ward 1). There is not "a single word" from the National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating this summer's deadly crash, to suggest that "the current GM contributed in some fashion or another to the June 22 catastrophe," he said.

Catoe's supporters say he has performed well, advocating for Metro with regional and federal leaders, cutting administrative expenses and moving swiftly to address such issues as mobile-phone use by employees. A zero-tolerance policy, ordered by Catoe in July, bans bus and train operators from using mobile devices to call or send text messages in non-emergency situations. Operators are supposed to be fired after the first offense.

Jack Corbett of MetroRiders.Org, a riders group, said the group also supports Catoe's efforts to streamline staff and expenses. But he called on Metro to beef up its safety staff and to be "fully transparent" on ongoing safety issues.

Corbett said the board, not Catoe, is Metro's "weak link." The 12 members -- six of them voting -- are appointed by elected officials or elected in their jurisdictions, so "they have divided loyalties," he said. That makes them reluctant to ask local governments to increase funding for Metro.

Board member Jeff C. McKay, a Fairfax County supervisor (D-Lee), said that the structure makes for "a level of dysfunction that is frustrating."

When board members criticize Catoe, they usually focus on communications problems. In the weeks after the Red Line crash, internal breakdowns delayed the release of information to riders about continuing issues with track circuits, a vital part of Metrorail's crash-avoidance system and a central part of the NTSB investigation.

Over the Labor Day weekend, track work that shut down three stations left many riders with 40-minute waits for trains because shuttle bus service was poorly coordinated, said McKay, who experienced the delays.

Metro has a corporate strategy and communications department that includes a media relations office with five full-time employees. After the crash, Catoe hired two outside consultants to improve crisis communications.

James Lukaszewski was hired primarily to provide "communications about litigation," spokeswoman Farbstein said. His fee was $4,000 a day; he charged Metro for seven days' work this summer, or $28,000, she said. She said she could not elaborate on what he did because of pending litigation. At least six personal injury lawsuits related to the June 22 crash have been filed against Metro.

Metro hired a second consultant, Andrew Hudson, a former spokesman for Denver, in July under a six-month contract to improve overall communications, internal and external. Hudson, who spent 1 1/2 days interviewing staff, is paid $275 an hour. Farbstein said he will conduct more interviews and deliver recommendations by February.

But despite efforts to improve communications, workers say morale is low. Some say the management style has been too punitive, even for the smallest infractions. In the agency's top-down system, workers say, they are often frustrated because they do not feel that senior managers are addressing long-standing problems, including safety concerns.

"Catoe isn't really standing up for us," said Michael Golash, the union activist leading the no-confidence drive, which is part of his campaign to regain the presidency of Amalgamated Transit Workers Union Local 689. The 7,800 active members make up most of Metro's 10,000 employees. He pointed to grievances about safety issues that he said have been ignored by management. Golash said he has almost 1,000 signatures on his petition, most of them from bus drivers.

Other workers have criticized rail managers for not acting on two-year-old NTSB recommendations to install warning equipment designed to prevent track worker accidents. Catoe said the agency has not made a decision.

Some employees also said Catoe has weakened oversight because he shifted safety officers and quality-control staff from a separate safety department into the bus and rail departments they monitor. The move, part of an agency overhaul two years ago, gave those officers less independence, they said, and compromised safety. Catoe has defended the move, saying that the approach broadens the reach of safety within the agency.

Since the June crash, rider unhappiness has flooded online blogs, chats and comments. Graham said he has begun receiving e-mails from riders calling for Catoe's resignation.

"The guy at the top needs to take responsibility," said Joe Baumgartner, 44, a District software engineer who rides the Red Line.

Some longtime riders said they take Metro less often because service has become less reliable.

"If I have to get in early, I drive because Metro is not necessarily going to get me there on time," said Miriam Pemberton, 57, who rides the Red Line from Silver Spring to Farragut North for her research job. "To get me back, they have to be more consistent."

Catoe is well aware of the complaints. Riders approach him on the train -- he uses it to commute from his Capitol Hill home to Metro headquarters near Verizon Center-- and at the grocery store. Even his dental hygienist has asked him about Metro.

The pressure is evident in Catoe's demeanor and tone. In public appearances, he has often seemed frustrated and tired. At board meetings before the crash, he would mingle and make small talk with reporters; he is more guarded now. At the bus garage groundbreaking, he became emotional while addressing the supportive crowd. He acknowledged Metro's "troubled times" and said, his voice rising, "I want to tell you that we're building the bridge over troubled waters.''

Catoe has a long record of navigating difficulties. He grew up in public housing complexes in the District and, after graduating from Spingarn High, worked as a parking attendant and mail sorter and in other low-level jobs, receiving a college degree after nine years.

His father drove a cab for 35 years and had nine children. His mother was a longtime cook in the executive dining room of the late Katharine Graham, former chairman of the board of The Washington Post Co.

His public transportation career began in 1979 by happenstance. While on vacation on Catalina Island in California, he broke a leg falling off a motorcycle. He wound up with a job in personnel at the Orange County Transit District and worked his way up to operations director after 17 years. He later headed transit services for Santa Monica, before moving to Los Angeles.

In his first few weeks on the job in Washington, three pedestrians died in Metrobus accidents, and a train derailment injured 20 people. Catoe vowed then to make Metro the safest transit agency in the country, the best ride in the nation.

Instead, Metro is suffering an unprecedented string of misfortunes.

Last week, on Sept. 14, a Metro communication technician died four days after he was struck by a train, the fourth person to be fatally injured while doing work for Metro since June.

The transit agency has also been hurt by disclosures about workers caught sending text messages and using mobile phones on the job. A train operator tested positive for drugs after delivering a train with too many rail cars to a station. In August, Metro fired two bus drivers: one on suspicion of kidnapping a passenger, the other for driving with a suspended license at the time of an off-duty accident. On Sept. 3, a Metrobus driver with a history of accidents struck and critically injured a jogger.

"A lot of times, I feel like we're playing Whack-a-Mole," said Metro board member McKay. "Every time something gets settled, something else pops up."

Staff writer James Hohmann contributed to this report.

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