Mini-revolution on Metro board augurs well for transit system in new year

By Robert McCartney
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 18, 2010; 8:52 PM

We don't know yet who will be Metro's next general manager, but Santa is leaving him or her a Christmas present in the form of a mini-revolution on the transit system's board of directors.

The Metro board's longest serving member, Arlington County Board Vice Chairman Chris Zimmerman (D), announced unexpectedly Thursday that he is resigning from the Metro position at this year's end.

In addition, the board's second longest serving member, D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), is virtually certain to be ousted from his seat by the incoming D.C. Council chairman, Kwame R. Brown (D).

Graham is probably the Metro board's best-known member. Wearing his trademark bow tie and oversize eyeglasses, he was constantly in the news in 2009 when he served as Metro board chairman at the time of the Red Line crash that killed nine and jolted the region out of its complacency about Metro's problems.

The twin departures represent a significant and welcome shake-up in Metro's leadership. Although both men have been hardworking and knowledgeable advocates for the system for more than a decade, their time has passed.

Metro needs fresh oversight, especially as the board prepares to pick a new, permanent general manager in early 2011. It needs directors eager to embrace new approaches necessary to fix problems that have been building for years, especially to improve safety and maintenance.

Graham and Zimmerman are not the right fit for those tasks. They were two of the board's most engaged and influential members during the years when Metro failed to build a safety culture and allowed maintenance to erode.

They both believe that Metro's only real problem is lack of money, when in fact ineffective management and governance share much of the blame. Studies by a series of outside experts, ranging from federal safety monitors to private business consultants, have repeatedly concluded that Metro has been poorly run in numerous ways.

Of course, there's no guarantee that the two replacements on the board, which has eight voting members, will do any better.

Filling Zimmerman's seat starting in January will be fellow Arlington County Board member Mary H. Hynes (D).

In the District, council Chairman-elect Brown is likely to appoint D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) to replace Graham, according to people familiar with Brown's thinking. They spoke on condition of anonymity because an official announcement isn't expected until Tuesday.

Graham, who was scheduled to talk to Brown on Monday, said Saturday that he still hoped to remain on the board. But he was philosophical about the prospect of departing after nearly 12 years, saying: "I think there's an overwhelming desire for change right now on the Metro board. Obviously it's affected Zimmerman, it's affected others."

The turnover comes as the region's political and business leadership is finally making a concerted push to overhaul Metro's unwieldy governance apparatus. A subplot in this tale is that Brown's role helping to lead the reform effort has apparently contributed directly to his plan to remove Graham.

Brown was co-chair of a blue-ribbon task force, sponsored by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments and the Greater Washington Board of Trade, that issued an ambitious report in November urging changes in Metro governance.

While serving in that position, Brown sat in on private interviews with current and former Metro officials, including former general managers. Many of them complained that some individual board members made demands of Metro staff even though the board is supposed to act only as a group.

Much of the criticism was directed at Graham, according to several sources who spoke on condition of anonymity because the discussions were confidential. Board of Trade President and chief executive Jim Dinegar has said such interference helped create "a culture of fear" in Metro's top management.

There's little doubt that this dissatisfaction helped prompt Brown to plan to replace Graham. In fact, Brown deserves applause for taking such a direct interest in an important regional issue. Other top politicians in our area - like the governors of Virginia and Maryland, say - ought to take notes.

Graham defended his record, saying he opposed micromanagement. He said he seldom went to the Metro staff with problems but acknowledged that he regularly raised details with whoever was general manager. Graham also said he thought the task force largely represented suburban views.

"I have received virtually no criticism from the people of the District of Columbia, and they're the people who brought me to this dance," Graham said.

As for Zimmerman, he said he stepped down because Metro's troubles mean the job has become too demanding as he moves up to be Arlington County Board chairman in 2011. He also might have realized that after nearly 13 years it was just time to go.

May new faces in a new year mean new success in rehabilitating the troubled transit system. I'm going on holiday. The column returns Jan. 2 with my 2011 predictions quiz.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company