Target of unrelenting criticism, top Metro executive quits

Prior to his announcement that he will resign, The Washington Post's Lena H. Sun spoke with Metro's general manager about the June 22, 2009 crash that killed nine people, safety issues and whether his administration was a failure.
By Lena H. Sun, Joe Stephens and Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 15, 2010

Metro General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. announced his resignation Thursday, following the deadliest year in the transit agency's history. His departure leaves Metro searching for a new leader as it confronts huge budget shortfalls and its biggest safety crisis in more than three decades.

Catoe, who has run Metro for three years, said he wanted to give the troubled agency a chance for a new start. His last day will be April 2.

"The events of the past six months and related incessant publicity have created an unhealthy distraction for the organization," he said, reading from a letter he wrote to the agency's board of directors. "I have decided that it is time for me to . . . provide this organization an opportunity to move beyond the current distractions."

Catoe's announcement follows months of revelations about lapses in safety and oversight at the nation's second-busiest subway system.

Records revealed that Metro's crash-avoidance system had failed more than once before June's Red Line crash, which killed nine people and injured dozens.

Documents also showed that Metro had barred safety inspectors from live tracks and allowed safety deficiencies to fester for years. Those reports shook public confidence, prompted federal criticism and led to an Obama administration proposal to overhaul transit safety regulation nationwide. As a result, Metro announced last month that four top managers would be leaving or be reassigned, including Catoe's top deputy and safety officer.

Jackie Jeter, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, which represents most Metro workers, said the "total turnover of top Metro management" was troubling. "Who is left to decide and oversee those decisions that must be made to help ensure a safe, productive mass-transit system?"

In an interview Jan. 8, Catoe acknowledged that Metro's once-stellar reputation was suffering.

Despite Metro's past success in mobilizing for special events, such as last year's presidential inauguration, the agency is "now discussed at certain meetings as 'Here's what happened at [Metro] and what not to do,' " Catoe said. He said that Metro had become a "poster boy for safety issues that other agencies should avoid."

Although many riders had called for his resignation, Catoe said as recently as Jan. 8 that he would stay.

"I believe I offer a leadership that can fix this," he said, referring to the multiple safety lapses. "I know we will do it going forward."

Metro board Chairman Jim Graham, of the District, said: "I think he decided very, very recently that enough was enough and he's gone. It's been a very rough year."

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