Washington Metro system seeks 'Clark Kent'

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 28, 2010

Washington's aging Metro system needs a high-caliber general manager who is tough yet politically shrewd, a proven expert in transit operations yet one creative enough to transform the agency's culture, according to current and former senior officials.

"That's a tall order," said Peter Benjamin, first vice chairman of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (Virginia). "Are you looking for Clark Kent? Yes."

This month, General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. announced his intention to retire April 2, and Metro is searching for a new chief executive to guide an agency beleaguered by funding shortfalls and safety lapses. Five Metro workers have been killed on the tracks in the past seven months, the most recent deaths occurring Tuesday when a maintenance truck backed over two technicians.

"There's clearly a major issue on the culture of safety at Metro that we have to do something about," Benjamin said.

A nationwide search for the person tasked with turning the agency around is expected to take six to nine months and focus broadly on executives with transit or other management experience who have dealt with daunting challenges, board members said.

Benjamin said that during a meeting Thursday, members will discuss finding an interim manager "who can make critical decisions along with the board" but that a time frame for hiring that person has not been set.

"You don't want to leave critical issues like safety in limbo until we get a new general manager," said Benjamin, who is expected to be elected chairman Thursday.

There has already been "strong interest" in the permanent job, said current board Chairman Jim Graham (D.C.). Metro paid Catoe a salary of $326,000 plus a $60,000 housing allowance last year.

"I don't think this position will go begging," he said. "I have been holding people at bay."

Graham said a search firm probably will be hired to recruit and then narrow a list of candidates in a "very open" search. "We aren't going to close any doors."

Benjamin underscored that the new leader must be savvy enough to navigate the complex political terrain that is a crucial part of the job, while leading an agency with 10,000 employees that serves about 1.2 million bus and rail riders each weekday.

"The most important thing we need is a top-notch transit manager who knows how to deal with the people below him and the world of Washington," Benjamin said. "Washington is a fishbowl. There is no other transit manager in the country that has two governors, eight jurisdictions, a mayor and the Congress looking over his shoulder."

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