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Metro's resigning manager inherited funding and board problems

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By Robert McCartney
Friday, January 15, 2010

Rejoice if you want that Metro General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. has finally decided to take the fall for the transit system's troubles. Just be aware that after the "good riddance" toasts are over, the region is going to suffer a wicked hangover as the realization sinks in that Metro still needs to deal with structural problems that are far beyond the capacity of a single executive to solve.

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Catoe's performance fell short of what was needed in some ways, especially in his failure to push hard enough to transform Metro's bureaucratic culture so that it would focus more on efficient operations and safety.

But Catoe was not responsible for three other serious troubles afflicting Metro: a shortage of reliable funding; an aged infrastructure; and a highly politicized, internally divided board of directors.

"He inherited a lot of problems that have been suppressed over time: the maintenance issue, the funding issue," said D.C. Council member Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large), new chairman of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

Those difficulties aren't going away, and they might make it harder to recruit a top-quality successor.

It appears that Catoe took the high road Thursday, deciding on his own to step down after three years because controversy over his leadership had become too much of a distraction from efforts to fix the system. There's little reason at this point to think that he was forced out, as the board said he still had its full confidence.

Nevertheless, Catoe's position has seemed to become more precarious each month because of a stream of accidents and revelations about safety problems. His fate may have been set last month when U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) blasted Metro's safety record and pointedly declined to say whether she favored keeping Catoe. He might have wanted to get away before Metro's problems are aired at next month's National Transportation Safety Board hearing on June's deadly Red Line crash.

Bashing Catoe has been a popular pastime for many riders since the crash, and it exploded with Thursday's announcement of his resignation. Here's a sampling of critical comments posted on the blog "Unsuck DC Metro": "John Catoe is retiring. Maybe 2010 is looking up after all!"

"Should have been fired awhile ago."

"FINALLY! I already feel safer."

"Thank God. Metro has become very expensive and has underperfomed during his tenure."

The criticism is partly justified. As is well known, Catoe never seemed to appreciate the importance of communicating effectively and proactively with the public. In one notorious example, most riders didn't know that three stations were going to be closed over Labor Day weekend when Metro relied on a single, opaque news release to spread the word

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