Metro Chief Executive Richard A. White, who had recently started riding the Metro again after four years of driving to work, noted something was amiss. At a bus stop, a posted schedule was out of date. During a meeting later with his top executives, he asked a simple question: Who is responsible for keeping schedules current?
White's neck started to turn red, the color rising like the mercury in a thermometer, according to accounts of the meeting. "Who OWNS this?" he thundered last fall.
The question seemed to reverberate through the concrete hallways at Metro's Washington headquarters, where accountability is not always clear. As chief executive, White owns every problem. But at the same time, the management structure he has fostered has been layered with confusion.
If train operators are improperly trained, don't look to their managers; that's the job of the agency's planners. When Metro ran short last summer of SmarTrip cards needed by passengers to exit parking lots, the culprit wasn't the person in charge of parking; reordering cards was the responsibility of the chief financial officer.
White, 53, reached the pinnacle of his career when he came to Metro in 1996. He had spent years working as a federal bureaucrat, then as a manager at New Jersey Transit and later as the top executive at Bay Area Rapid Transit in San Francisco before he was tapped for the key job at "America's subway" in the nation's capital.
White, who oversees a 10,000-employee agency the size of a large company, looks the part. He is fastidious in appearance, partial to dark business suits and crisp white shirts with "RAW" monogrammed on the cuffs. He is obsessive about preparation and often is the first to arrive at headquarters each morning, the light in his second-floor office glowing at 6 a.m. Several years ago, he persuaded the board to add "chief executive officer" to his title of general manager because he wanted to be on par with private industry executives.
Last year, White was elected president of the transit industry's main trade organization, the American Public Transportation Association, raising his profile even higher. He is among the best-compensated local officials, earning a salary of $259,000 -- more than District Mayor Anthony A. Williams, Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner or Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. Along with a SmarTrip card for free use of the transit system, White gets a $42,000 living allowance and a sport-utility vehicle.
His speech tinged with the hard tones of his native Massachusetts, White has often testified before Congress on behalf of Metro or as an advocate for the nation's public transit systems. He is the longest-serving chief executive in Metro's 29-year history. White reports to a 12-member board of directors, which sets policy and is responsible for approving his annual budget.
For much of his early tenure, things ran smoothly and White received good reviews from the board. He saved the Metrobus system, which was on the verge of dissolving from lack of support in 1998, developed Metro's first strategic plan in 20 years and has watched ridership soar 33 percent since his arrival.
White points out that Metro was recently called "the best-running system in the country" by the head of a transportation association panel.
But problems have accumulated in the past two years: Fare increases, service problems and management missteps have angered the public. Board members privately questioned White's abilities and management style but decided not to replace him.
Metro board Chairman T. Dana Kauffman praised White's knowledge of the industry and said that if he has one shortcoming, it's that he is aloof. "Dick needs to be out there more," he said.
White always has relied on a handful of senior advisers to tell him what is going on. He rarely attends retirement parties or other casual gatherings where he could mix with front-line employees. On the Metro, he prefers to read rather than talk to passengers. When a bus driver recently appeared outside his office to seek help resolving a payroll problem, White's staff called the police.
White said he shields himself out of nature and necessity. "I'm an introvert," he said. "And I can't listen to 10,000 people. . . . This is a massive organization."
He noted that he has spent much of his energy trying to solve Metro's long-term funding problems and navigating the maze of local, state and federal governments that help pay for the agency. Until recently, he had left daily operations to his deputy, James T. Gallagher, who followed White from BART in San Francisco. Nearly all of Metro's recent problems have fallen under the umbrella of daily operations.
The troubles are compounded by an organizational mind-set of "not wanting to bring bad news forward," which can make it difficult to get straight answers, White said.
"It's like a Socratic question-and-answer session sometimes," he said. "If you don't ask the right question, you don't get the right answer, and sometimes you don't get the right answer if you don't ask three different people."
The turbulence of the past two years also has prodded White to consider his weaknesses as a manager and ways to improve. "I've done a lot of looking in the mirror," he said.