Cleatus E. Barnett, one of Metro's founding fathers, dies at 83

By Timothy R. Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 18, 2010; B06

Cleatus E. Barnett, 83, who as one of Metro's founding fathers helped expand the rapid transit system into Montgomery County and was implacable in his commitment to preserve the system's aesthetic integrity, died Aug. 11 at a hospice care center in Pensacola, Fla. He had Alzheimer's disease.

A Silver Spring Republican, Mr. Barnett represented Montgomery County for 32 years on the board of directors of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, including five terms as chairman. He resigned in 2003 at age 76 and moved to Pensacola.

He joined the transit authority in 1971, two years after construction had begun on the city's rapid transit system. In 1976, Metro opened with a section of track that stretched nearly five miles in the District from Rhode Island Avenue to Farragut North.

He was able to untangle Metro's complex financing and funnel hundreds of millions of dollars to Montgomery County. Money came from the counties, the federal government and interest from cash that WMATA had in the bank. WMATA is the only U.S. transit agency without dedicated funding.

When money for Metro construction ran out in 1974, his politicking and bargaining secured more funds. In the late 1970s, Mr. Barnett assisted Rep. Herbert Harris (D-Va.) in developing legislation to provide Metro with $1.7 billion in federal funds, which Harris confirmed briefly by telephone.

He helped other directors secure funding to build up transit in their jurisdictions, but his greatest impact was expanding the Red Line into Montgomery County in the early 1980s.

Through early planning with Montgomery officials, Mr. Barnett helped ensure the county received the first suburban routes when Metro expanded outside the District.

The Potomac ruled out Virginia, said Joseph Alexander, a former Fairfax County supervisor who served on the board of directors for 23 years.

"You had to cross the river to get into Virginia, which was an expensive, long process," Alexander said. "It was easier to go into Maryland."

Because much of Metro's funding was allotted years in advance, it took some prescience to secure money, said Zachary Schrag, a professor of history at George Mason University who wrote "The Great Society Subway," a 2006 history of Metro.

"By deciding early and deciding firmly, Montgomery County was able to get money before other jurisdictions," Schrag said.

Mr. Barnett was crucial in expanding Metro to Shady Grove when transit was initially slated to terminate at Rockville.

The Red Line immediately helped spur more than $1 billion of construction in Bethesda and nearly $500 million in Rockville, according to a 1984 Washington Post article.

Cleatus Eugene Barnett was born on a farm outside White Plains, Ky., on May 22, 1927. He served in the Navy during World War II. After the war, he became a radio engineer in West Point, Ga., where he met Doris Pfluger. They were married for 59 years.

Along with his wife, of Pensacola, survivors include a daughter, Sharon Barnettof Pensacola; a brother; a sister; and three grandchildren.

Mr. Barnett moved to Silver Spring in the 1950s and found work as a broadcast engineer for WTOP-TV, which eventually became WUSA (Channel 9). He retired in 1992 as a video editor. Mr. Barnett served on the Montgomery County Council from 1964 until losing a race for reelection in 1970. Soon after, he was appointed to Metro's board -- then known as the Washington Suburban Transit Commission -- by Republican County Executive James P. Gleason.

Though soft-spoken and shy, Mr. Barnett earned a reputation for his fierce defense of Metro's aesthetics.

Washington's transit system, Mr. Barnett believed, should reflect the city's magnificence and beauty. He opposed garish advertising aboard trains and inside stations, which he felt would detract from their majestic vaults.

He also vigorously opposed wrap-around ads on city buses.

"This is the nation's capital, and there is a great history here," Mr. Barnett said in 2003. "George Washington and Abraham Lincoln have tread the streets here. We need to be respectful of that. . . . You shouldn't use the opportunity to trash the rail or the bus system because you can make a little money."

Mr. Barnett was a staunch defender of Metro's original orange, gold and brown interior hues. He had helped choose the color-combination and resisted efforts to change it, even when popular opinion deemed it an ugly throwback to bygone times.

Eventually, train chairs were upholstered in burgundy and blue. But in deference to Mr. Barnett, seats at the front and back of each car retained the old palette. The chairs are known as "Cleatuses."

Traveling the system on his own, he would often carry a pocket notebook and jot his observations, noting trash, rude Metro workers and late trains.

His Metro duties often took much of his free time. He was paid $20,125 by the time he resigned.

"To say I do this for public service sounds trite," Mr. Barnett said. "I just find the work rewarding. It's work with dignity."

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