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Metro General Manager John Catoe to resign

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Bob Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 14, 2010; 2:30 PM

D.C. Metro System General Manager John. B. Catoe Jr. announced his intentions to resign, effective April 2, after a special board meeting Thursday. He said he realized that the tragedies at Metro in the last year had created "an unhealthy distraction" and that good leaders should know when it is time for a leadership change.He said his resignation would provide the opportunity for the agency to "move beyond distractions."

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Dr. Gridlock, The Washington Post's Bob Thomson, was online Thursday, Jan. 14 to discuss the intended resignation and local reaction.

A transcript follows.

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Bob Thomson: Good afternoon, travelers. Catoe was holding back tears as he talked to us after formally announcing to the board that he would leave on April 2. The board did not ask him to resign. One board member told me that his decision appeared to be non-negotiable.

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Clinton, Md.: I am saddened to hear that Mr. Catoe plans to resign, however I applaud his willingness to accept blame, something that is rarely done by leaders today. I wish him the best in future endeavors and hope that METRO will find capable leadership as well.

Bob Thomson: Board member Chris Zimmerman's comment after the board meeting with Catoe and Catoe's formal announcement was that "John Catoe is an honorable man." I completely agree. He's taking the blame for a lot of problems he didn't cause. He's saying, I'm the top guy. It's on me.

While I understand that sentiment -- it often is the right thing to do -- I never advocated his resignation. Never endorsed the Queen of Hearts style of management.

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Washington, D.C.: Dr. G, while I am not one of those that is gloating at Catoe's departure, given how things have played out over the last year with the major accident, numerous other safety incidents, and other problems at WMATA, this seemed to be inevitible. The big question for me is: where does Metro go from here? Whoever they hire as GM will face the same problems that forced Catoe out unless WMATA (and the governments that fund it) can make those fixes necessary to ensure the long-term stability of the system.

Bob Thomson: Catoe will leave April 2. Seems likely the board will have to appoint an interim general manager while it does a search. Getting rid of the top guy doesn't get rid of the problems that are part of an aging transit system with severe money problems.

Who's going to want this job now?

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Washington, D.C.: Best news all week. Now what about the contract extension an how can we hold those board members accountable? Why aren't Maryland's members electorally accountable and how can I go about trying to get that changed?

Bob Thomson: That's the thing about authorities, like WMATA. The members aren't elected to those board jobs. You can't hold them directly accountable. Tracing responsibility back to governors, mayors and legislatures is such a bank shot that it's not effective.

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Burke, Va.: The selection process that resulted in Catoe's hiring was pretty much a political mess. Is there any hope that the selection of his replacement will be any better?

Bob Thomson: You folks remember Richard White, the previous general manager? Looking through the mailbag of your comments, I see plenty that remind me of how people felt when White resigned.

I don't have any reason to believe that the new boss after Catoe is going to have any better tools to work with than Catoe did.

And the process involved in hiring the new person is likely to be very similar to the national search process used to hire Catoe.

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Cleveland: The problem with public transit is not just in Washington ... Here in Cleveland we are looking for 18 percent cuts ... We had two men killed by buses because the drivers were texting ...

Bob Thomson: Transit is in trouble nationwide, because the recession cut jobs and that cut ridership and that cut revenue. Many transit systems also are chronically underfunded and that's certainly true with Washington's Metro. The local governments are in no mood to increase funding because they have their own budget problems now.

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Washington, D.C.: What will Catoe do next and who are the top candidates to replace him?

Bob Thomson: I think Catoe is just going to take some time off. (Wouldn't you?) He wanted this to be the last job of his career, so I doubt he's made any specific plans at this point.

It's a little early for a list of top candidates. They usually come from big urban transit systems or from within the ranks of the organization. My guess is that we'll wind up with an outsider, just because I don't see anyone from the top ranks of WMATA likely to win enough support on the board.

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Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C.: I'm guessing this is different because of Catoe resigning instead of being fired, but are we going to have another golden parachute issue here, or did Metro actually learn a lesson from the White departure?

Bob Thomson: There was no discussion of that today. Catoe's departure wasn't the subject of negotiations. There was no board pressure on him to do this. At about noon today, the board ended a regular committee meeting and announced it was going into exec session to discuss a personnel matter. At that point, they knew what Catoe was going to tell them. It apparently was non-negotiable on his part.

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Arlington, Va.: Do you think Catoe's decision to resign has anything to do with his roundtable with DC-area bloggers yesterday? And does this cause you to view any recent public information or statements by Metro with more skepticism?

Bob Thomson: Catoe told us that he made this decision about a week ago. There wasn't any one event that led to it he said. There was no pressure from any specific party.

He said he hasn't been spending the past few months mulling whether he should do this, but just came to the conclusion that the organization needed a change. "I've become the face of the organization," he said.

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Falls Church, Va.: Hi - I'm kind of surprised about this - I feel like he got a bit of a bum rap. Is this as shocking to others (meaning, you) as it is to me? Why the resignation? I feel that this is sort of a no-win job he leaves.

Bob Thomson: It's not shocking, given the events of the past year. But on the other hand, it's not something that the board members were looking for. Board members were very much in his corner, despite their complaints -- which have been escalating -- about Metro management.

He's had some wins: Handling about 1.8 million trips on inauguration day and getting people to and from the new baseball stadium have been big successes for Metro. But day in and day out, seeing all the problems and not being able to simply say "fix this," it can't be much fun.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Have they chosen an interim replacement for Mr. Catoe yet?

Bob Thomson: No. The board does not appear to have made plans for this. Board Chairman Jim Graham said the board would start to work on the succession "shortly." But the board has a lot of work to do in the meantime. You know all the financial problems Metro is having, and the board needs to make decisions about a fare surcharge or service cuts for this year, then it needs to immediately begin considering a fare increase and service cuts for the budget year starting in July.

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Washington, D.C.: Interesting that he held that meeting with all the bloggers right before he announced his resignation ...

Bob Thomson: He told us he made the decision about a week ago, but he certainly gave no public hint of it.

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Farragut Sq., Washington, D.C.: Dr G, I know in previous chats you've been skeptical of the "fire 'em!" fix that angry riders are espousing. In your opinion, how has Catoe done and what does his departure mean for Metro? Is it a good thing, or is a leadership shakeup the last thing they need?

Also, can we get someone from Transport for London or from Hong Kong or Tokyo -- or any other system in the world that, like, works -- to be his replacement?

Bob Thomson: When John Catoe took the job, he said we should judge him first and foremost on how he did on making the system safer. While I think the system is very safe and have confidence using the trains and buses, I certainly can't say we've had a great run on the safety front over the past year.

My main issues with Metro during Catoe's tenure: It's many problems communicating with riders, whether it's in an emergency or simply in communicating the state of the system and where we're going.

I'll probably try to make a best and worst list of the Catoe term for the Get There blog and ask you all to comment on that.

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ggw, unsuck, dcist, twitter: are lighting up with comments expressing relief by riders. how out of touch is the board?

Bob Thomson: That pretty much reflects what's in the mailbag for our chat. I've seen very few compliments for Catoe. It's mostly people glad he's leaving.

Help me with this: For months now, anytime something has gone wrong with Metro, I see at least a few people -- sometimes a lot more -- saying Catoe should resign. In my job, I cover aspects of all our regional transportation systems, what they do for drivers, transit riders, bikers and walkers. There are plenty of screwups everywhere.

But I haven't seen any calls for say, Pierce Homer in Virginia, or Beverly Swaim-Staley in Maryland or Gabe Klein in DC to resign as transportation chiefs.

Why was everything so personal with Metro's problems?

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Fairfax, Va.: So what's your guess on why? I'm guessing either he doesn't think the board will work with him sanely on the budget/fare problems, or that he's concluding that he isn't mean enough to deal with a bunch of internal issues and would rather leave than feel like he goes to work every day to fail. Or?

Bob Thomson: Or thinks the job isn't what he signed up for. That's my wild guess. He didn't say it, and nobody else says he said it.

The reason I mention it is that I've been feeling lately like Catoe is getting a bit of the Jim Zorn treatment from the board. Members have been more aggressive lately. The can be very critical of his top staffers.

Catoe had the power to make many of his proposed service cuts on his own. The board clearly didn't want him to do that, and he yielded to the board. But that can't be fun for a high-profile leader of the nation's second largest transit system.

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Arlington, Va.: So maybe Mr. Catoe should NOT have accepted that award as the 2009 Public Transit Manager of the Year?

Bob Thomson: It does seem like it turned out to be a curse, doesn't it? Like being on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

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District Building: Thanks for having this discussion.

Frankly, I'm a little perplexed that Mr. Catoe has decided to resign. While I do think a portion of the blame for WMATA's current situation does fall on his shoulders, I think that most of WMATA's problems were a time bomb just waiting to happen.

I would rather he ride out the storm, assuming he has learned from his mistakes, and fulfill is contract. Now, WMATA, as well as the region must once again start over.

Bob Thomson: That's about where I am. (And it's definitely NOT where most commenters are today.) The problems faced by this transit system -- and by us as the people who rely on it -- are tremendous. They get worse as the system ages. The recession just makes it worse, because there's even less money to fix things that are bound to break.

Where are we now that he's quit? We haven't solved anything. We're going to start over with a new leader who will have to learn the system and bring in a new management team. All this while Metro faces its worst ever budget crisis, promising to have severe impacts on riders.

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The job: I'll do it. Gladly give up my government attorney job to run metro. Hill experience, board experience, been in the region 10+ years ... lots of people would kill for this opportunity.

Bob Thomson: Seems like, if you take one of these top jobs running a transit system like Metro, you've got to go in visualizing the day when you'll be standing in front of cameras and microphones explaining why you need to take the fall for some things you had no control over.

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Queen of Hearts style of management?: What does that mean?

Bob Thomson: "Off with their heads!" is not a goal, and it's an unimaginative strategy.

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Arlington, Va.: This is disappointing news. DC is losing a true class act and leader in John Catoe, and I'm guessing they're going to have a hard time filling that job with anyone worth their salt. He inherited a system dogged by years of chronic underfunding, a micro-managing board, and aging infrastructure that was in bad shape long before he got here. Then he wasn't given the tools needed to fix the system in a realistic timeframe. That said, I agree that there were mistakes made by the organization in dealing with safety and operations issues. Still sorry to see him go.

Bob Thomson: I agree, Arlington, but you and I are in a minority on this, at least as far as today's chat is concerned. I don't see how Catoe's resignation makes things better for transit users.

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Washington, D.C.: Sorry, I don't buy the argument that the Post and others have had about Catoe. When the system that he manages murdered 9 people last June, the Post basically took the attitude that we should keep him since his job is tough and change is hard. That is a failing attitude to have. He should have been fired over the summer.

Know when I knew he was going to quit? When he proposed those ridiculous service cuts the other week. That was a huge flag that this guy was out of good ideas. Good riddance.

Bob Thomson: I have not heard anyone with any transit expertise say that Catoe had a hand in the June 22 tragedy. When I hear criticism of Catoe -- and Metro generally -- from transit users, it has a lot more to do with the day to day operation of the system. I thought Metro failed to get out in front of the service problems last summer that stemmed from the crash. I've said lately -- as have many of you -- that I don't understand why Metro can't be more aggressive in repairing escalators at heavily used stations. That's the type of thing that really affects the experience of the average transit users and gets people discouraged.

There are plenty of things like that I wish Catoe had tackled and improved. But I wanted him to improve them, not to quit.

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It apparently was non-negotiable on his part. : You keep saying this like his leaving is a terrible tragedy. What more did this guy have to do to get fired? His system killed 9 people last year and at least 2 employees, perhaps more. And then he has the guts to propose those absurd cuts to the system the other week. In business, when you don't have anymore good ideas, you head to the door. Bring on someone else. Time to get tough and serious about metro's future. He simply didn't have it anymore.

Bob Thomson: We don't know what caused the crash, let alone whether any individual was responsible. It's pretty likely it had to do with a problem in the track circuitry, but the NTSB needs to determine that and make recommendations to Metro for dealing with it.

Metro GM shouldn't be a tenured position -- and it clearly isn't. I think your point about business is completely valid. But what I see today in the chat is more about revenge than about improving the transit system.

Okay, he's quit. Where are we now and where do we go from here? His resignation isn't a solution to anything.

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Washington, D.C., Brookland: Thanks for hosting this chat. I'm not happy that Catoe is leaving because I think he started a good process for changing the culture amongst WMWATA workers. That was his biggest challenge. Too bad that the brakes will be put on that process b/c that is one of the biggest barriers to improving the whole system.

Bob Thomson: I think there's plenty of great people who work for Metro mixed in with some real clunkers. I expect the top person to set a tone and work on improving the culture, and I expect to see specific results, but I don't blame that person for every rude employee or sluggish response.

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"I've become the face of the organization," : Um, yeah , that's what happens when y ou're the leader of a business/transit system. Man we are lucky this guy is almost out the door. Bring in someone who can get tough wtih the metro unions and is willing to raise fares so we don't have service cuts. Then start firing workers who are lazy (chatting with each other in stations instead of helping customers) and inept. Time to get tough across the board.

Bob Thomson: I think by the end of the month, we'll have a figure on how high the fares will have to go to avoid service cuts starting in July. Let's chat about that again.

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Washington, D.C.: The decision is characterized on the WMATA web site as a retirement, not a resignation. Which is it?

Bob Thomson: Yeah, I saw that. He resigned. He came into this job hoping he could keep it for the rest of his career.

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Washington, D.C.: To me Catoe was and always has been a bus guy. Not suitable to run rails. Period.

Please find a rail guy next.

Bob Thomson: I think a transit system as big as ours, carrying a million riders a day, should have someone who can manage both.

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Washington, D.C.: Part of me is thrilled that Catoe is gone, because so much has gone wrong under his management.

Another part of me is filled with dread because I doubt that Metro will be able to find anybody who can improve on his performance, given the realities of the system, the lack of a culture of safety, the funding problems, and -- perhaps most importantly -- the fact there aren't that many people in this country who actually have the credentials to run a large urban mass transit system. It's not like hiring an accountant or a mechanic.

Bob Thomson: I think the talent pool for a job this big is pretty small. I'm worried about who they're going to get and about the gap between now and the selection of a successor. Things were going to be tough enough for transit riders this year without this new element of picking a leader and getting that person up to speed.

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Anonymous: There's a HUGE difference between a state Secretary of Transportation, and someone who is supposed to be MANAGING a transit system. The GM of Metro is supposed to be responsible for the actual operations of the system. In the case of Catoe, he might have been a great guy, but he was apparently not capable of managing the system. Safety, on-time performance, reliability, and cost have all gotten worse under Catoe. If the GM is so powerless to actually manage Metro, why will none of them actually say so and tell us where the real problems are?

Bob Thomson: Any transportation leader is supposed to manage the system that he or she is in charge of. And every system we have, whether it's trains, buses or roads, breaks down. That's my problem understanding why Catoe is the only one expected to take the rap when a transportation system breaks down.

My point isn't that we should be targeting other leaders as well. It's that our goal should be improving things, not revenge against the top official. By all means, we should hold them accountable. All of them. But some of this criticism sounds like being on a ship in a storm and hoping the captain runs into trouble.

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Big Picture: I am really sorry to see Catoe resign -- he didn't cause some of the most egregious problems now faced by the Metro board, and this is probably the worst possible timing for such upheaval.

I wish more people understood that their anger is better directed at those who control Metro's FUNDING sources, rather than attacking Catoe or whoever replaces him and will also have no money to repair/upgrade the system. He wasn't perfect but like you said, so much of what's happened under tenure is a long time coming.

Best wishes to a classy person - take care, Mr. Catoe.

Bob Thomson: We'll do some look-backs at John Catoe's tenure. That's what we're going here and now. But it's delusional to think that his resignation has fixed anything for us. I find that riders don't get very involved in fixing the transit system. The Rider's Advisory Council could use a lot more help.

We've started on a very long road to recovery and the naming of a new transit boss will be just one step along the way.

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Bob Thomson: Travelers, thank you for your many comments today. I've got to break away. Join me again on Monday at noon. That's the time of our regular weekly chat about all local transportation issues. Write to me anytime at drgridlock@washpost.com, and look for updates on these issues on the Get There blog.

Stay safe.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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