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Ex-general manager David Gunn to assess D.C. area Metro system

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 18, 2010; B04

Metro is contracting with David L. Gunn, a top transit guru and former Metro general manager, to provide an overarching assessment of what ails the system and how to fix it, agency officials said.

Gunn, a Harvard Business School graduate who led Metro from 1991 to 1994, among a string of key transit jobs, plans to arrive in Washington this month for a two-week appraisal of how Metro is run, they said.

"It's like calling in a specialist: 'Give the system a physical, and tell us what you think,' " said Metro board member Mortimer Downey, one of two new federal appointees to the board of directors.

Board Chairman Peter Benjamin said he called upon Gunn and asked him to help define Metro's problems. "If anyone understands the issues of transit and how to solve them, it is Dave," Benjamin said. "We want to get from him a problem statement: What do we need to fix now, and how do we need to fix it?"

Gunn, 72, reached by phone at his home in Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, confirmed his appointment, saying he agreed to take on the job because, as he put it, "they need help."

Gunn explained how he will tackle the assessment.

"It's really a look at the management structure and what they are trying to accomplish with that structure and the resources," including the capital and operating budgets, he said.

In addition, he will look into what Metro reports to the board and "what tools are given to the board to perform its role of oversight."

Gunn will have an office in Metro's executive suite, and at the conclusion of his work, he will give an oral report to the board, he said.

Benjamin said he expects that Gunn's report will also help shape the search for a new permanent leader for Metro to replace General Manager John B. Catoe Jr., who announced last month that he will retire April 2.

The decision to bring in Gunn comes as the transit agency faces some of its greatest challenges ever, including a projected $189 million budget deficit for 2011, an $11 billion shortfall in capital funds, an unprecedented string of fatal safety lapses and a major leadership shake-up.

Metro board members spoke glowingly of Gunn's qualifications to provide crucial insights.

"I have extraordinary regard for his understanding of the mechanics of a rail system and buses as well," said Downey, who worked with Gunn in the 1980s at the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Benjamin, who worked with Gunn at Metro in the early 1990s, said he sought the assessment from Gunn because he is "the best person who can do it anywhere in the country and probably the world."

Gunn, a Boston native who is a dual citizen of the United States and Canada, was a pre-med student at Harvard but said he "always liked trains and machines."

After a stint in the Navy Reserve, he went to business school, receiving an MBA in 1964. He then spent the next decade working for railroad companies across the country. From 1974 to 1999, he worked for transit agencies in Boston, southeastern Pennsylvania, New York, Washington and Toronto, and was president of Amtrak from 2002 until he was fired in 2005 after repeated clashes with the Bush administration.

Gunn, who does not use e-mail or own a cellphone or computer, has a back-to-basics management style that emphasizes setting clear goals and empowering employees, down to supervisors and foremen, to solve problems themselves.

"What happens in business [is] . . . e-mail is abused tremendously," he said. "You have these managers who e-mail everyone all the time and drive everybody nuts."

In contrast, Gunn said, his method is to agree on a concrete "plan and strategy, and then you get out of the way and don't keep badgering people," largely because that causes employees to be too reliant on the boss for direction.

"With the e-mail and cellphone and raspberries, as I call it, when something goes wrong, they kick all the problems upstairs, and that is not healthy," he said.

As if Metro did not have enough troubles, the latest blizzard delayed Gunn's arrival in Washington, which had been planned for this week. "With all the problems the city was having with recovering from the snowstorms . . . the people I would want to talk to were preoccupied, so we delayed it," he said.

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