D.C. area airports board bitterly divided in search for new executive

Nathaniel P. Ford Sr. has worked with the transit systems in Atlanta and San Francisco.
Nathaniel P. Ford Sr. has worked with the transit systems in Atlanta and San Francisco. (San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 27, 2011; 12:00 AM

The authority that oversees two of the Washington area's main airports and a multibillion-dollar project to extend Metrorail to Dulles International has become bitterly divided over who its next chief executive ought to be.

At stake are the operations of Dulles and Reagan National airports, the Dulles Toll Road and management of the massive rail project, which already has been criticized for spiraling cost estimates.

The leading candidate has had an impressive rise in the transit industry. However, critics question his ability to manage money because of personal financial problems, while at least one supporter alleges that racism against the African American man motivates some of the opposition.

Nathaniel P. Ford Sr. started out as a train conductor in New York City. He became a top transit executive in Atlanta and San Francisco, where he is chief of the Municipal Transportation Agency .

By all accounts, he's a charming, charismatic figure.

But for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, he's also become a divisive one, exposing rifts on the board over what type of leader should hold a role so critical to the region's economy.

Questions were raised about Ford's financial judgment after board members learned that he owes back taxes, according to sources close to the search who would talk only on the condition of anonymity. Other concerns have centered on his use of corporate credit cards and a lavish party he threw for the transit authority in Atlanta.

Sources said board members are also dissastisfied that they did not learn of these issues until after Ford's initial interview. Some blame Ford for not volunteering the information; others blame the board's search firm for not flagging it sooner. The search firm, Maryland-based Krauthamer & Associates, did not return messages seeking comment Friday.

Ford's candidacy has been further muddied by the narrow split among board members. In an informal poll, seven voted for him and six against. One vote in favor came from a member who has attended only one meeting in two years; his most recent absence was because he is stuck in a hotel in Ivory Coast because of post-election political unrest.

In response to concerns about Ford's candidacy and the selection process, Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) last week asked the Government Accountability Office to review the operations of the authority and its oversight of the rail project that Wolf helped revive in 2008, after it appeared that federal assistance would not come through.

The authority has had to answer questions from federal transit officials about the cost and management of the 23-mile Metrorail extension, now projected to cost as much as $6.6 billion. Wolf said that whoever runs the authority "ought to be a person with honesty and integrity, who has the capability to build the rail on time and on budget - and to operate two airports that are the lifeblood of this region."

In an interview with The Washington Post, Ford said he should be judged on his overall professional track record.

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