Metro board picks new chairman

New Metro board Chairman Peter Benjamin, left, talks with outgoing chief Jim Graham. Benjamin has served in several roles with Metro.
New Metro board Chairman Peter Benjamin, left, talks with outgoing chief Jim Graham. Benjamin has served in several roles with Metro. (Mark Gail/the Washington Post)
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By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 29, 2010

Peter Benjamin, a veteran engineer with 20 years of experience in senior positions at Metro, took the helm of the agency's board of directors Thursday, stepping into a critical role as the agency faces the biggest budget and leadership challenges in its history.

Benjamin, who was first vice chairman before being unanimously elected chairman, pledged to make safety his top priority. "The time has come for us to do this differently," he said, acknowledging that Metro's safety procedures have been inadequate.

Eight passengers and a train operator were killed June 22 in a Red Line crash, and four Metro workers have been killed on the tracks since then. Those incidents triggered an upheaval in Metro's leadership and prompted the Obama administration to plan to overhaul transit oversight nationwide.

Benjamin said he had reached out to the U.S. Department of Transportation, the AFL-CIO and the American Public Transportation Association, asking them to propose and help implement changes to Metro's safety structure. "We need a lot of help," he said.

Over the course of 20 years, Benjamin, 67, a technocrat known for his grasp of the complexities of running Metro, served as the agency's chief financial officer, director of planning and senior financial adviser.

Before that, he worked on technology development and program analysis for a decade at the Urban Mass Transportation Administration, now the Federal Transit Administration. In the early 1970s, he headed the DOT's Urban Analysis Group. He served as mayor of Garrett Park from 1996-2000 and 2002-04.

Benjamin has a master's degree in aeronautics and astronautics from MIT and a doctorate in systems design from Northwestern University. He spent part of his early career working as an aerospace engineer on the Apollo lunar program.

One of Benjamin's first jobs as Metro board chairman will be to carry out a nationwide search for a new general manager. John B. Catoe Jr. plans to retire April 2. On Thursday, Benjamin enumerated qualities that he considers vital in a successor, including the ability to deal with politicians and the media, understanding transit operations and being committed to rehabilitating the 34-year-old Metro system.

Benjamin will also oversee incorporating new federal members onto the board. On Thursday, Mortimer Downey, a veteran transportation manager, and Marcel C. Acosta, an executive director for the National Capital Planning Commission, were sworn in as the first of four federal members authorized under legislation that also approved $1.5 billion in federal funding for Metro over 10 years.

Downey, the principal federal member, and Acosta, an alternate member, were appointed to four-year terms that will end Jan. 28, 2014.

Articulating his philosophy in an earlier interview with The Washington Post, Benjamin said that Metro needs to focus more on its riders. "We are here for them. Our job is not to run buses and trains. . . . Our job is mobility, to move people, to provide transportation alternatives," he said.

At the meeting Thursday, he stressed the need to "provide safe, clean, reliable, comfortable service and a reasonable price." He said that "decisions must be based on how it affects the customer, not what is easier for us."

In other board action, Catherine M. Hudgins of Fairfax County was elected first vice chairman, and Neil O. Albert of the District was chosen second vice chairman.

Jim Graham, the departing chairman, described his 2009 tenure by quoting from "A Tale of Two Cities" by Charles Dickens: "It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness . . . it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair."

Recalling his horror upon seeing the devastation at the scene of the June crash, Graham said that from that day, "it is as if the heavens opened, and all manner of woes descended on us."

In thanking Graham, Benjamin said, "I don't believe there is a single member of this board who would have traded places with you over this past year."

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