John Catoe's surprise resignation leaves Metro in a jam

Friday, January 15, 2010

IN ANNOUNCING his surprise decision to resign, Metro General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. said that he wanted to give the system a chance to move beyond "current distractions." If Mr. Catoe sees the system's string of train crashes, worker deaths, bus mishaps and safety lapses as distractions -- and not as issues that need to be addressed at the most fundamental level -- then perhaps he's right about the need for change. Nonetheless, his departure could not have come at a worse time for the struggling system.

Mr. Catoe stunned members of the Metro board Thursday with news that he would step down, effective April 2. "Good leaders know to impact change. Great leaders know when it's time for leadership change," he said, reading from a letter he wrote the board. Later he was said to be holding back tears. No doubt Mr. Catoe made a difficult decision that he believes best serves Metro. But it leaves the system without a leader at a perilous moment, facing budget problems as well as safety issues. Add to that the inherent difficulty of finding someone with the specialized skills to run a unique rail-bus system in the country's largest fishbowl, and you have a real crisis for the 34-year-old transit system.

Indeed, it was those factors -- plus our admiration for Mr. Catoe's management experience and apparent level-headedness -- that had convinced us the board was right to maintain confidence in him, despite accumulating problems. Mr. Catoe had become a flashpoint for criticism, but we didn't believe it was fair to blame every problem on him and it didn't seem to us that renewed instability at the top would help Metro now. So it is disappointing, a word used privately by some board members, that Mr. Catoe did not share the board's belief that he could be part of the solution.

But, as D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), who chairs the Metro board, told us, "When one door closes, another opens." As the board looks to the future, it is clear -- from reporting by The Post's Lena H. Sun and Joe Stephens -- that stronger leadership and more resolve are needed. The Red Line crash that killed a train operator and eight passengers last June and subsequent events revealed a system that for years had shrugged off safety concerns and regulators' proddings. It has become, as Mr. Catoe himself said, a "poster boy for safety issues that other agencies should avoid." The full extent of the challenge probably won't be known until the National Transportation Safety Board concludes its investigation into the June crash.

The board now turns to the task of picking what will be its fifth general manager in a little over four years. One element of its search ought to be a look in the mirror. Most board members over the years have been committed to supporting a top-quality system, but their parochialism and micromanaging can sometimes make a hard job harder. The moment calls for self-reflection as well as a nationwide search.

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