How to help Metro's next general manager

By John B. Catoe Jr.
Sunday, April 4, 2010

The concepts of service, teamwork and leadership have guided me throughout my career. Transit agencies are created to serve people, and I've been fortunate to have been a part of great teams. Metro has been no exception.

In the past year, we have had several tragic accidents, which have deepened our resolve to make changes. As Metro's chief during the worst tragedy in its history, I carried the responsibility for the agency. Yet, that became a distraction hindering my ability to lead the agency. The decision to step down was difficult. It was also what was best for Metro, and I welcome Richard Sarles as interim general manager while the Metro board searches for a permanent replacement.

Everyone wants Metro's next leaders to succeed, and I believe there are steps that can be taken to help them. As I move to the sidelines, I feel a new freedom to ask that these steps be taken.

First, the new general manager needs long-term, dependable funding for both the capital and operating budgets. I applaud former representative Tom Davis (R-Va.) and those in Congress who shepherded to passage the bill that promises to provide Metro's capital budget with $150 million in federal funds annually, and I applaud local jurisdictions for their commitment to match those funds. The money is a start, but it will not be enough to overcome years of shortfalls. Additionally, it must be approved annually, requiring the general manager to rally local officials, the business community and Congress to support its inclusion in the federal budget.

The next important step in Metro's long-term health will be to get our partner jurisdictions to establish a multi-year capital funding agreement. Without that, our maintenance program will continue to look a lot like the station platforms we've had to shore up with two-by-fours.

The operating budget will be just as troubling for the next general manager, because Metro still lacks dedicated funding for day-to-day operations. The system should not have to go hat in hand each year for the money to run what is widely recognized as a necessity for the region. The burden of meeting operating cost increases cannot be constantly resolved by raising fares and reducing service. That is counter to Metro's mission.

Transit in the D.C. region has champions in Congress and in the business community and needs more champions in our state and local governments, people who will fight for improved, and truly dedicated, funding. With the help of these new champions, great things can be done. One example: Priority bus corridors could improve trips for half of Metro's bus riders in as little as five years, allowing buses to move as fast, or even faster, than rail. To make that a reality, the new general manager would need these local government champions to support funding and changes such as giving priority to buses at traffic signals and establishing bus-only lanes.

Next, the new general manager needs a sustainable fare policy. The current structure is bankrupting the rail system. When customers pay their Metrorail fares, they cover 80 percent of the cost of the ride. Meanwhile, Metrobus fares cover only 29 percent and MetroAccess fares cover a paltry 6 percent. It won't be a popular position -- especially for the elected officials on the board -- but Metrobus and MetroAccess fares should be increased. Raising Metrorail fares to subsidize Metrobus and MetroAccess deficits is not a sustainable strategy. It will only discourage riders from using the rail system, making the funding problem worse.

This points to a more fundamental question: Given rules that allow one jurisdiction to veto any given proposal, can the board really make strategic policy that serves the whole region? I know there is increased attention being paid to this governance issue. The first step, though, is to clearly define the region's expectations for the board. Begin with the end goal in mind. Change for the sake of change will not serve the region well.

There has been a great deal of worthy discussion about changing Metro's culture. The culture does need to change, and that's why I began the safety improvement program. But significant and lasting change takes time, tenacity -- and focus. If the region and the board take the actions I've outlined, I believe Metro's future general managers will be able to devote more of their focus to changing this corporate culture, making Metro safer and making service better.

The success of future general managers ultimately depends on their abilities, but many others have a part to play. Metro urgently needs local governments and the board to commit to providing dependable operations and capital funding; a sustainable fare structure; truly regional policies; and an overall approach consistent with a focus on safety.

These are difficult tasks, but with success will come an improved economy and quality of life for millions who live in the Washington metropolitan area.

The writer was Metro general manager from 2007 to April 2.

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