Shortly after 10 a.m. today, as four gleaming stations open along Metro's Red Line extension, a slight, bespectacled man named Cleatus Eugene Barnett is scheduled to receive a framed certificate marking his 13 years as a member of the transit authority's board of directors.
As insignificant as that piece of paper might be, it is the first public acknowledgement of Barnett as master of the region's transit puzzle, that high-stakes political game in which one extra Metro station can mean hundreds of millions of dollars in commercial investment and tax revenue for a cash-hungry jurisdiction.
Barnett's "contribution exceeds that of any other board member in Metro history," declared Jackson Graham, Metro's first general manager. "All you have to do is look at the [Metro] map in Montgomery County to see proof of how tenacious, obstinate and stubborn . . . Cleatus and that county have been."
Today's brief award ceremony will draw the political elite of the District and the Maryland and Virginia suburbs and undoubtedly will make Barnett uncomfortable. The soft-spoken Kentuckian loathes the limelight and shunned it this year as he bargained, cajoled and traded favors to win -- virtually singlehandedly -- the long-sought completion of Metro's 17.9-mile segment from Metro Center to Shady Grove, the system's longest suburban branch.
"Opening the line north of Rockville marks a victory parade for Montgomery County, and the one clearly at the head of the parade is Cleatus," said Francis B. Francois, who represented Prince George's County on the Metro board during the late 1970s, when the two counties were fierce rivals for federal and state transit funds.
Francois is among many Washington area transit experts and politicians who respect Barnett. Colleagues say that behind his shy demeanor and gentle drawl, Barnett, a 57-year-old television engineer, is obsessed by Metro, determined like no other director to win maximum rail service first for his adopted county and then for the region.
Montgomery officials still privately boast of the time in 1981 when Barnett, foreseeing a shortfall in federal assistance to Metro, outbargained rival directors and fashioned an agreement giving the county $182 million in construction funds in 1985, an amount far exceeding that of any other member jurisdiction and virtually ensuring completion of the Red Line to Wheaton by 1989.
"He's a country slicker who sneaks the pants off us city bumpkins, takes the crease out and hands them back as if nothing happened," said Edmond F. Rovner, a special assistant to Montgomery County Executive Charles W. Gilchrist, a Democrat who reappointed Barnett in 1979. Barnett declined to discuss the 1981 funding negotiations in detail, saying the county "is still reaping the benefits of an agreement" achieved despite "an attitude on the board at the time that Montgomery County had already gotten quite a lot of service."
Indeed, the envy some officials have for Barnett's prowess has prompted charges that Montgomery, among the richest counties in the nation, enjoys the fruits of Metro at the expense of those poorer sections of Washington and southern Prince George's that await the rail service.
Metro Assistant General Manager William A. Boleyn, who has worked at the transit authority for 10 years, said some board members frequently have complained, " 'Well, all this money is being spent in the most affluent part of this region,' "
Montgomery fared extremely well not so much by "sharp practice or sly moves," Boleyn said, but because "Cleatus and Montgomery County were planning a decade ago with a great deal of . . . commitment. Prince George's, on the other hand, was arguing about if and when" Metro would arrive.
Montgomery is reaping dividends from the efforts of Barnett, Gilchrist, former county executive James P. Gleason, four county councils and Carlton R. Sickles, whose 20-year involvement with the system makes him a kind of father of the transit authority. The recently opened Bethesda stop, for instance, has sparked $1 billion in construction, which is expected to generate annual taxes of $1.3 million.
At the Rockville station, where today's ceremony will be held, $500 million worth of construction is scheduled for completion by the end of the decade. Development on a similar scale is planned for the Shady Grove stop, the last of the four just opening.
While Barnett is not solely responsible for the Red Line or its spinoff effect on development, his admirers and detractors say that opening the Shady Grove extension this year, instead of in 1985 as some Metro officials once predicted, is a tribute to his demonic attention to detail, canny political sense and timely compromises.
"I've survived," the taciturn Barnett said of his Metro years in a recent interview. "I've had an opportunity to mold and move things. Remember, Metro is something that people once believed would never happen."
In a sense, Barnett's tenure at Metro marks the perfect marriage of private and public personas. Born to a farming family in the small town of White Plains, Ky., he came to Washington in the 1950s as a WTOP radio engineer and is still a broadcast engineer for WDVM, its sister television station. Today, Barnett the engineer deciphers Metro's budgetary spaghetti as easily as if he were reading a schematic drawing of electronic wiring.
Meanwhile, a strong conservative bent -- he has been a Republican throughout a 20-year career in politics, including six years on the Montgomery County Council -- has given Barnett a philosophical springboard from which to attack fat in the $425 million-a-year bureaucracy.
Like an apprentice engineer tracing a blown circuit, Barnett during budget season "is constantly following the whole path," Boleyn said. "Oh yes, he'll nickel-and-dime you. He asks: Is the money in place? When will the contract be advertised? Can I get a commitment date?"
Barnett's daily work routine exemplifies his absorption in the inner workings of Metro. Typically, he reports (by car, not the Red Line) to WDVM studios in Friendship Heights by 6 a.m. and works until 2 p.m., a schedule that permits him several late afternoon hours to pore over voluminous paper work at home or Metro headquarters. He takes off Thursday and Friday, but yesterday morning -- true to form -- he was at Metro offices confirming arrangements for today's opening.
Barnett's devotion to his avocation has come at a price. He no longer has time for fishing, once a favorite hobby, and he says his wife and grown daughter "have missed a lot and put up with a lot" because of his two jobs. His duties as a trustee of the First Baptist Church in Wheaton and his beloved bluegrass music are two of his few remaining diversions.
"To say I do this for public service sounds trite," Barnett said. "I just find the [Metro] work rewarding. It's work with dignity."
Richard J. Castaldi, a Metro director from Prince George's County, said Barnett is "so far ahead of the game" largely because of the sheer number of hours spent at it. "That time has given him the knowledge, and he knows where the skeletons are buried," Castaldi said.
Barnett's legendary penchant for the smallest detail has riled his colleagues more than once. Tom Crosby, who covered Metro for nine years as a Washington Star reporter, recalled one time in the mid-70s when Barnett called for reductions in Metro's police force. The request fell flat because it came at precisely the moment when local officials were extolling the transit system's excellent safety record, Crosby said.
"Cleatus is an extremely stubborn man," said Crosby, now spokesman for the Potomac chapter of the American Automobile Association. "Sometimes his attention to detail subverts the goals he's working toward."
Richard S. Page, Metro general manager in 1979-83, recalled another episode in early 1982 that typifies the Barnett sense of economy. Barnett, then head of a subcommittee on the transit system's long-range goals, recommended a series of improvements "in the day-to-day operation in the tunnels: making sure the buses ran on time and the drivers were courteous," Page said.
"I was frankly disappointed at the time," said Page, who now heads a business lobbying group in Seattle. "I didn't see the need for specific goals centered on the daily operation."
Barnett, though, led his committee on inspections of Metro garages, repair shops, tunnels and spare-part storerooms. Eventually, his recommendations were adopted.
"Cleatus was absolutely right," Page said. "The fact was . . . we were missing more runs and more spare parts, and absenteeism was higher." Performance improvements later that year "would not have happened without Cleatus' determination to watch the nitty-gritty stuff," Page said.
In April 1983, Barnett and Page squared off again, this time over a $600,000 advertising program Page had included in his annual budget. Barnett derided the campaign, which included television and radio spots, as "a bunch of Bicentennial jingles that sound cute and don't accomplish much." But the director's attempt to delete the funding failed on a tie vote.
On other occasions, Barnett has tackled funding problems with the daring of a riverboat gambler. In 1981, he convinced Gilchrist to support a $10 million "once-in-a-lifetime" loan from the District to ensure continued tunnel construction on the Red Line between Silver Spring and Wheaton.
However, because of the sour national economy that year, the county executive was uneasy about Barnett's plan. He finally bowed to Barnett because he "never knew Cleatus' judgement to be wrong," Gilchrist said in a recent interview.
Once, Barnett's flair for deal-making went awry, associates said. Last year, after Page resigned as general manager, Barnett encouraged Boleyn, a longtime friend, to run for Metro's top job.
Boleyn, who said Barnett's support was "key" to his decision to seek the job, lost to Carmen Turner, another assistant general manager.
Boleyn's bid failed "because [Boleyn] didn't have the four votes" needed for appointment, said Barnett, adding, "I supported him as long as he had a chance. Carmen was my fallback position."
Barnett is certain to have multiple "fallback positions" in the years ahead as he nurses Montgomery's eastern Red Line branch northward to Wheaton and Glenmont, projects expected to be nearly as taxing as securing the opening of Shady Grove.
"In terms of completing its program, Montgomery County is well toward the head of the list, although there is some uncertainty about funding beyond Wheaton," Barnett said. "You couldn't regard that as a stimulating engineering problem. It's pretty much political and managerial. I expect I'll be around a bit longer for that."