Task force holds open meeting to discuss needed changes in Metro's governance

Two Red Line Metrorail trains crashed June 22, 2009 between the Fort Totten and Takoma Park stations, killing nine, including one train operator.
By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 18, 2010

The head of the National Transportation Safety Board, who had been critical of Metro, on Friday praised the agency's response to an NTSB report on safety deficiencies related to the June 2009 Red Line crash.

"We are very heartened by their commitment," said NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman. She spoke before a public session of a joint task force set up by the Greater Washington Board of Trade and the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments to review Metro's governance structure.

The public-private task force, set up in June, is focused on examining different governance models and identifying how to improve decision-making by the board. A study is expected by early November.

"What we know is the current governance structure is not sufficient," said Jim Dinegar, president of the Board of Trade. The task force wants to issue the study before Metro hires a permanent general manager to replace John B. Catoe, who stepped down in April saying he believed he was a "distraction" to change at Metro.

The task force is gathering input from current and former Metro general managers and board members, as well as transit safety experts, labor representatives and transit advocates. The review, among other things, will consider how to balance the influence of elected officials and technical experts, parochialism and regionalism on Metro's board, and the veto power exercised by board members.

"I think you need more people appointed by states and the city, and people with expertise in finance and operations rather than people representing jurisdictions," said Bob Chase, president of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, who spoke at the session on Friday. "Metro is a regional system that needs more regional people in the operation," he said.

Ben Ross, president of the Action Committee for Transit, said that while board members from Maryland, Virginia and the District should defend their jurisdictional interests, "in some cases it's been taken too far."

Hersman declined to discuss possible changes to Metro's governance but said the agency's board of directors has the authority it needs to hold management accountable on safety. But she indicated that while the board should set a high bar on safety, it should not micromanage.

"I ride Metro regularly. I don't want the Metro board to be the track inspectors, let me tell you that," she said.

Hersman said she was encouraged that Richard Sarles, the interim general manager, agreed to act on all 15 NTSB recommendations to Metro stemming from the Red Line crash. "We don't see that response regularly," she said.

In addition, Metro's board of directors held an unprecedented meeting with the NTSB to discuss its findings. "That's the first time that kind of communication happened," said Hersman, who upon presenting the NTSB report in July had criticized Metro for being "tone-deaf" to earlier NTSB recommendations on safety.

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