Help Metrorail's next chief succeed -- by cutting the job down to size

By Pierce R. Homer
Sunday, January 17, 2010

While no one should be too surprised by John B. Catoe Jr.'s decision to step down as Metro general manager, all of us should be disappointed. After all, it was just a year ago that Metro performed flawlessly while carrying more than 1.5 million passengers on the day of Barack Obama's inauguration. And it was only in May that Catoe was named "outstanding public transportation manager" by the American Public Transportation Association. Indeed, Catoe is one of the best public-sector managers and transportation professionals in the United States.

But we all know he has been asked to operate an aging rail system badly in need of long-term, dedicated sources of funding; the cost and the condition of the Metrorail system have been extensively discussed in these pages. Thanks to Catoe's efforts, and those of his immediate predecessors, Dan Tangherlini and Dick White, funding progress has been made.

But the problem remains severe -- and it is far from the system's only problem.

More fundamentally, Catoe and his predecessors have been asked to operate within a system of governance that was designed -- 40 years ago -- to get a Metrorail system built in a region that had roughly half the population that it does today. Today, the challenges facing Metrorail are less about new construction and more about the unglamorous maintenance and operation of an aging system. Shouldn't the governance of Metrorail be updated to reflect this reality?

For starters, we ask Metro's general manager to be not only a top-notch administrator but also one of the most visible public figures in the region. In a 24-hour news environment, with the multiple layers of governmental oversight that characterize our region, that is an impossible task.

There is a better division of labor. A general manager could be hired to professionally manage, operate and maintain the system, and the board chairmanship could be turned into a highly visible, fixed-term position responsible for the public face and policy direction of Metro. This would, of course, end the annual rotation of the chairmanship among Metro board members -- a good thing in itself. More important, it would allow the general manager to focus on the most critical tasks of all -- managing, operating and maintaining the rail system.

Similar governance structures have worked well elsewhere -- in Fairfax County and at the National Capital Planning Commission, for instance. For this approach to work, the chairman would need to be appointed by a third party, perhaps by agreement of the Virginia and Maryland governors and the D.C. mayor. Metro board members would have to cede a little authority and forgo their chance to be chairman for a year. But this would also help to attract and retain a general manager with the right skills for managing a complex transit system.

Along with this, the makeup of the Metro board should be reconsidered. Today, Maryland, Virginia localities and the District appoint board members via different processes and for divergent reasons. Many of those appointees outlast the general manager. And the local officials who serve on the board also have to fashion local budgets, making tough choices among the competing needs of education, health care, public safety and transportation. The jurisdictions are in competition with one another for jobs, transportation funding and, yes, Metro services. In the meantime, the users of the rail system -- who pay nearly 80 percent of the operating costs of the rail system -- are underrepresented. That will still be the case even after four new federal appointees are added to the board.

If we want Metro to focus on daily maintenance, operations and safety, doesn't it make sense for daily Metrorail users to have a significant say on the governing body?

Finally, and above all, Metro needs to focus on its core business responsibility -- again, the maintenance, operation and safety of the Metrorail system. Over the years, Metro has grown into a regional transit provider encompassing rail, bus, paratransit and other transportation activities. Metro can do better by doing less.

Today, the bus market is increasingly dominated by innovative local and subregional providers. Yet the Metrorail workforce is still tied to the Metrobus workforce, and a board that was designed to get Metrorail built and paid for also has oversight of the bus system. In a region blessed with numerous regional, subregional and local institutions, a serious program of devolution could improve the efficiency and effectiveness of many secondary services, allowing Metro to focus on its core Metrorail responsibilities.

Better governance will not happen spontaneously. It will require leadership, political will and hard choices. But look at the recent record of our region when we worked together on a top priority: Dulles Rail, dedicated Metrorail funding, the intercounty connector, a new Wilson Bridge and D.C. street cars did not happen by chance. These successes tell us that better governance at Metro and Metrorail is not only necessary but achievable.

The writer served as Virginia transportation secretary from 2005 until this week.

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