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Board's Backing of Catoe Unwavering in Time of Turmoil

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By Lena Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 24, 2009; 1:38 PM

The decision by the Metro Board of Directors on Thursday to extend General Manager John B. Catoe Jr.'s contract was expected even though the agency is experiencing the most turbulent time in its history.

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In the past three months, eight passengers were killed in a train crash, four workers were fatally injured on the job and an inexplicable rise in track suicides occurred. On Monday, Metro fired a driver whose bus ran over a jogger.

Yet Catoe has enjoyed strong support from the board even as some angry riders are calling for his resignation, and a union activist is circulating a no-confidence petition. Some of that support has little to do with Catoe's performance and more to do with the history of the position, the funding issues the system faces and the difficulty Metro would have finding a replacement.

When he was originally 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.

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. The general manager must work with a governing board of 12 officials who represent two states and the District, each of which has different politics and priorities.

To get the financial help the agency needs, transit analysts said, Metro must show that it is stable, and there's no better way to do that than to extend Catoe's contract. 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 have been politically sensitive, board members have said, because some of the same members hired him.

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.

"I will stick with this job," said Catoe, who was the second-ranking executive at the Los Angeles transit agency when Metro 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, according to Metro spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein.

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.

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