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2 federal representatives to be named to Metro board Sunday

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 24, 2010; C01

The Obama administration plans to name two federal representatives to serve as new members of Metro's board of directors Sunday in an urgent bid to strengthen oversight of the troubled transit agency.

The General Services Administration will announce the appointments of veteran transit official Mortimer L. Downey as a director and regional planning executive Marcel C. Acosta as an alternate director, GSA Acting Administrator Stephen R. Leeds said in a statement. The members -- the first of four federal appointees -- are expected to be seated at a scheduled board meeting Thursday.

The GSA had planned to announce all four appointees together, but "given the importance of what is going on" at Metro, it rushed to appoint Downey and Acosta in time for that meeting, said a GSA official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The move to install the first federal representatives on Metro's board injects a fresh element of uncertainty into Metro operations as the agency struggles with historic budget deficits, a leadership vacuum in its executive ranks and widespread concerns about safety since the June 22 crash on the Red Line.

Metro General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. abruptly announced Jan. 14 that he will resign April 2. Officials said Metro is likely to be without a permanent top manager for the rest of the year as a national search for a replacement unfolds. Metro also announced last month that four senior managers would be leaving or be reassigned, including Catoe's top deputy and safety officer.

This week, the Metro board of directors leadership is also set to change hands: First Vice Chairman Peter Benjamin, a representative of Maryland, is expected to take over the chairmanship from Jim Graham of the District.

The role of the federal board members remains largely undefined, government and Metro officials said. "Never before has the federal government taken a role in governing any transit system in the United States. . . . This is entirely without precedent," Benjamin said. "As the next chair, I am going to have to integrate those roles when I don't have the foggiest idea what is going to happen."

The four federal appointees were mandated in legislation that authorized $1.5 billion in federal funds for safety-related capital investments in Metro over the next decade. But the legislation did not detail the role of federal board members, although it said at least one should be a frequent rider of the transit system.

The GSA chose the appointees after consulting with "a broad range of stakeholders both inside and outside the government and across the communities of interest," an official said. "The strengths we looked for were financial management, sustainability, expertise in transit operations and planning . . . and frequent riders of the Metro bus and Metrorail system."

"If the federal government is going to be kicking in $150 million a year, it deserves voting representation on the board," said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.).

Lawmakers who backed the legislation said their intent is for the new members to protect U.S. interests in the system, which carries a majority of the 300,000 local federal workers to and from their jobs each day.

"The federal government would like its employees to arrive at work on time, fundamentally alive," said Downey, 73, a transportation consultant who served as deputy secretary of transportation in the Clinton administration and director of the New York City transit authority, the largest in the nation. Downey, a resident of Vienna, has been "a devoted rider of the Metro system for over 20 years," according to a GSA statement. He "has been involved with the DC Metro system for over 30 years, helping to complete and fund the system as both a government official and an industry expert."

Area perspective

The board has 12 members from local jurisdictions, including two directors and two alternates each from Maryland, Virginia and the District.

"By having thoughtful federal representation, we kind of elevate the board beyond the parochialism that can sometimes affect the Metro board," Connolly said. "We are looking for a systemwide perspective."

Acosta, who has served for nearly 10 years as executive director of the National Capital Planning Commission, the federal agency responsible for planning in the Washington area, said it is vital for the board to embrace a regional vision for Metro.

"We rely on a good service to keep the federal government thriving," said Acosta, a longtime Metro rider who lives in the District and does not own a car.

Yet the power of the new federal board members will be weaker than that of the local members in one key respect: They will not have veto power over board decisions, officials said. Under the legislative compact and bylaws that govern Metro, board actions require at least one affirmative vote from each of the jurisdictions to pass. But because the federal government is not a signatory to the compact, federal members will not have that power, officials said.

Downey said he is not concerned about the lack of veto power. "A veto can't really move the ball forward," he said. "All it can do is block things from happening."

But in the case of a close vote, the two voting federal members could "carry the day affirmatively," Downey said. In Metro board decisions, the directors are voting members. Alternates vote only in the absence of directors.

Downey, who was President Obama's agency review team leader for the Transportation Department, and Acosta, 48, who previously served as an executive with the Chicago Transit Authority, bring experience in other large cities to board deliberations over a new general manager.

"With more than 70 years of combined experience in transportation, sustainable development, urban planning, and public administration, Mort Downey and Marcel Acosta will be valuable additions to the WMATA Board," Leeds said in a statement.

William Millar, president of the American Public Transportation Association, endorsed Downey and Acosta as people with "vision and political skills."

A system in crisis

Metro faces "what might be the worst financial crisis of our existence," Catoe has said. The board is holding a public hearing Wednesday for public comment on how to address a $40 million shortfall in the agency's budget. Officials estimate the budget gap for the fiscal year beginning July 1 will be much worse: at least $175 million.

Benjamin said the gap for next year is likely to increase to $190 million because a pending court action could require Metro to provide a 3 percent pay increase for employees.

Metro officials have blamed the deficits on a decline in ridership.

The federal appointments come after months of revelations about lapses in safety and oversight at the nation's second-busiest subway system. In a continuing investigation, The Washington Post has reported systemwide problems in train control technology and safety oversight.

The accidents and news reports attracted unprecedented attention and criticism. Metro's safety became a focus of at least three hearings on Capitol Hill. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) called on Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to investigate the transit agency. The Government Accountability Office and the Federal Transit Administration began looking into Metro operations.

Last month, the Obama administration referred to Metro in calling for federal control of safety regulation of subways and light-rail systems nationwide.

"My expectation is that the new board members' top priority will be making Metro safe, reliable and sound," Mikulski said in a statement to The Post.

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