John Catoe's worst decision

By Jack Corbett and Kevin Moore
Sunday, January 17, 2010

In the three years that John B. Catoe Jr. served as Metro general manager, his worst move was the one he announced Thursday -- his decision to step down before straightening out Metrorail's many safety problems. Instead of caving in to stinging media criticism, Catoe should have stayed around to lop off more heads in Metro's hidebound safety bureaucracy and to work with the National Transportation Safety Board to implement its findings after hearings in February on last year's Metrorail tragedy. Then he could have left, with a safer rail system in place and a positive legacy.

Catoe acknowledged that his management style of "empowerment" of subordinates hasn't worked for him at Metro and must give way to a more hands-on, deliver-or-leave leadership, at least in safety matters. In the next year, Metro has two huge problems to confront: keeping an aging rail system operating safely and on time, and raising capital and operating funds so that crippling service cuts aren't needed to balance the budget. Metro's operating deficit will be about $40 million this fiscal year and is projected to rise to $175 million next year, in addition to an unfunded 10-year capital program of $11 billion.

Catoe's resignation also means that Metro's poorly functioning board of directors will have to deal simultaneously with recruiting new Metro management and addressing the worst financial situation in the agency's history. Finding interim leadership within Metro will be problematic, because there are few experienced managers left after Catoe's reorganizations. Having Catoe around to focus intently on safety solutions and to keep up staff morale over the next year would have freed the board to focus on the system's funding problems. Neither Catoe nor any Metro general manager can do much about the larger funding equation, anyway.

But there is a third major problem at Metro, and it's the overarching one: Metro's board. Its members -- most of them politicians -- have not been willing to fight their appointing jurisdictions to get more capital investment for the system in good years. Additional rail cars should have been ordered four years ago. Now, with the oldest rail cars frail and costly to maintain, no level of government -- federal, state or local -- has spare money to invest in transit because of the economic downturn.

Worse, board members are often at loggerheads. Currently, the board is made up of 12 members -- two voting and two nonvoting representatives each from the District, Maryland and Virginia. Two weeks ago, the District's two voting members vetoed a resolution supported by the Maryland and Virginia members that would merely have allowed the public to comment in a hearing on the option of raising Metro fares by 20 cents across the board from March to June; this would have provided just enough revenue to avoid service cuts and to allow minimal preventive maintenance of the fleet. Under the multi-jurisdiction compact that governs Metro, each jurisdiction has a veto over board decisions -- even regarding what issues that can be raised in public hearings.

This is obviously less than ideal. But there's hope for at least some change soon in the Metro board's working relationships, if not in the misuse of the veto power.

Under the law that authorized the federal government to match $50 million in "dedicated annual funding" from each of the three jurisdictions for a decade, the administrator of the General Services Administration (Uncle Sam's civil building and procurement agency) was directed to appoint four additional (two voting, two nonvoting) directors to the Metro board, including at least one "regular passenger" of Metro as a voting member.

The GSA hasn't acted yet. Our organization supported this provision to ensure that at least one board member had the mind-set of a daily Metro patron -- experiencing the broken escalators, offloaded trains and Metrobuses that don't show when they're supposed to. In fact, the GSA ought to use this opportunity to appoint as many as four "regular passengers" to help balance out board members who don't ride Metro. Within this group, GSA should name someone with experience overseeing transit safety matters, for obvious reasons.

John Catoe's timing was not good, but the system will have to move forward just the same. These four federally appointed board members could be the key to that. Because they need not represent individual jurisdictions, they should offer the board a broader, less parochial view -- something that's especially needed given the need to negotiate a difficult compromise involving fare increases, service cuts and further staff reductions.

Oh, and also choosing an interim and then permanent general manager. Now their help is needed with that, too.

The writers are directors of MetroRiders.Org.

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