Newly elected officials in the Washington region are using the vacancy at the top of Metro to press for a thorough culture change at the agency to address safety and financial problems, but it’s not clear whether they can overcome resistance.
The recent damaging split on the Metro board over the choice of a new chief executive illustrates the difficulty of reforming the rail and bus system, according to area political, civic and business leaders.
That’s partly because of differences within the region over what kind of top executive is needed. D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) want a turnaround specialist to shake up Metro, officials said.
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) agrees that “a change agent” is needed but would accept a traditional transit executive, according to his transportation secretary. Virginia also doesn’t think Metro’s immediate financial troubles are as serious as the District and Maryland do.
The rift over a chief executive also demonstrates concerns that the Metro board doesn’t appreciate the gravity of the challenges at a critical time for the agency and the region. Metro is pressing to secure $1.47 billion in new investments in coming months to buy rail cars and add capacity after opening the Silver Line in Northern Virginia. But costs are rising and ridership has flattened, even as officials say expansion is necessary to accommodate future growth.
The board wasn’t aware of serious problems with Metro’s financial management until a federal audit last year. It applauded the recently retired chief executive, Richard Sarles, for improving safety performance, only to see the agency embarrassed by multiple problems revealed in the fatal smoke incident in a tunnel near the L’Enfant Plaza station in January.
“They’ve needed a culture change for some time now, but the board doesn’t see it that way,” said Douglas M. Duncan, president of Leadership Greater Washington.
“It’s surprising that the board members praised Sarles for the culture of safety, and then there was the accident and we all learned that Metro did not have a culture of safety and was clueless as to what was going on,” said Duncan, a former Montgomery County executive.
James C. Dinegar, president of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, said Metro faced “a complete lack of confidence” after the smoke incident and fresh criticism of its finances.
“There really needs to be the equivalent of a hot team, a crisis management team, to immediately stop the backward movement and turn this around,” Dinegar said.
Fresh political leadership in the region has taken notice. Bowser and Hogan, both of whom were inaugurated in January, want the next chief executive to have experience in rescuing a troubled agency.
Bowser has toughened her stance toward Metro after serving for several years on its board prior to becoming mayor. Her office says she did so because of the smoke incident and because of new revelations in December about financial troubles.
For Hogan, it’s a natural fit to press for accountability from Metro. He won the governorship on a campaign devoted to reducing government spending and has said public money should be shifted from transit to roads.
“Metro needs a new direction, a turnaround person,” said a Maryland official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. “We have to figure out why the safety culture that was supposed to have been imbued throughout the organization after the Red Line crash [in 2009] allowed such an accident to happen again.”
The new thinking in the District and Maryland triggered the board battle in late February over the choice of three finalists for the job of Metro chief executive.
Two directors — D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) and Maryland attorney Michael Goldman — objected because all of the finalists were traditional transit executives. The majority on the board, led by Chairman Mortimer Downey, thought they could still move the system in the right direction.
The problem was temporarily averted when all three finalists suddenly withdrew. Downey said they did so because a leak to the news media had violated the confidentiality of the selection process.
Now the agency has to restart the process with its reputation damaged because of the withdrawals and the board’s internal divisions.
“I am disappointed that it got sidetracked,” Virginia Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne said. “I understand there were some very good candidates.”
Still, Layne agreed that transformation is needed.
“A change agent who can bring a new sense of urgency to the safety and [long-term] finances of the organization is crucial,” he said.
In theory, the District, Maryland and Virginia have tremendous influence over Metro. They provide multimillion-dollar subsidies that are a main source of Metro’s funding. Along with the federal government, they select the board’s eight voting members and eight alternates.
In practice, however, Metro has often acted with considerable independence. That’s partly because political leaders are reluctant to withhold funding for fear of being blamed for weakening the core of the region’s transportation network.
In addition, the board has had a checkered history. It was known for being fractious and ineffective prior to reforms and personnel changes triggered by the Red Line accident, which killed nine people.
Problems have arisen partly because members are sometimes torn between representing their jurisdictions and the good of the system as a whole.
In an interview Saturday, Downey acknowledged that Metro has further to go on safety and finances, but he said it does not need a turnaround expert.
“I hate the word ‘change agent,’ ” he said. “In some respects, that says we can just hire somebody who can do this for us.”
Instead, he said, the board needs to work with the new chief executive over time.
“There’s not some magic person or magic formula. It will have to be a total effort,” Downey said.
On safety, he said “a lot of things came to light” with the smoke incident.
“I’m not going to say that’s an aberration or a single event,” Downey said.
But he said the Federal Transit Administration, in preliminary conversations, said “they’re seeing significant improvement, continuing improvement [on safety] compared to what they saw in 2010 and 2012.”
Regarding finances, Downey agreed with Bowser that the board was not warned about problems by either management or Metro’s auditor.
“Should I, as a board member, have known more about what was going on down in the kitchen? It’s hard to figure out,” Downey said. “If we’re not hearing about the problem, and the auditor isn’t saying there’s a problem, it’s hard to know there’s a problem.”
Metro probably will top the agenda when Bowser, Hogan and McAuliffe hold their first regional summit since the D.C. and Maryland leaders took office. They are hoping to meet in April, although a date hasn’t been confirmed.
“The biggest challenge facing us right now is the fiasco of Metro,” Duncan said. “If they’re serious about doing something as a region, McAuliffe, Bowser and Hogan can show us very quickly by stepping in and doing something with Metro.”
This article marks the debut of Regional Memo, an occasional feature with reporting on and analysis of policy and politics in the Washington area.