Metro has selected an aerospace and defense products executive as its next general manager and is in negotiations with him, two officials familiar with the contract talks said late Wednesday.
Neal Cohen, 55, a former top financial official in the airline industry who became chief financial officer and executive vice president of the aerospace company Orbital ATK in 2012, will become the top manager of the Washington area’s transit system if the two sides reach an agreement on a compensation package, said the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the deal has not been finalized.
Both cautioned that it is possible that no agreement will be reached. The negotiations were first reported Wednesday night by WRC (Channel 4).
Virginia Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne said he was happy to hear that the board has identified its choice. Virginia officials were briefed on the qualifications, but not the names, of the two finalists Tuesday, he said.
Two other Washington-area transportation experts identified the other finalist as Paul J. Wiedefeld, who was ousted in July as director of Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport.
“What we basically said is: ‘You guys pick whoever. We would be comfortable, based on the experience level, of either one,’ ” Layne said. “They said they were going to do this by November, and I’m pleased that they kept to their schedule. . . . We’re going to do everything we can to make him successful.”
Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn, who was briefed by Metro board members along with Layne, echoed his Virginia counterpart in an interview Wednesday, saying he approved of the choice.
“I don’t know much more about him than what was explained to us,” Rahn said of Cohen. “But he certainly seems to check all the boxes. He has financial experience, he has turnaround experience, and he has experience in the transportation industry.”
Others declined to comment and cautioned about any premature release of information.
“I can’t comment on the search process until it’s over,” said Leif Dormsjo, director of the District Department of Transportation. “They’ve had problems completing search processes in the past. I’d prefer to contribute to a successful one.”
In a news release in 2012, Cohen’s responsibilities at Orbital ATK were described as “accounting and controls, treasury, tax, financial planning and analysis, internal audit and investor relations.” The company said he would “play a key role in developing business strategies to drive growth and profitability.”
Before joining Orbital ATK, Cohen had “30 years of experience working for several public companies, including those in the aviation and manufacturing industries.” Immediately before, he had served as president and chief operating officer of Laureate Education, “where he helped develop strategy, growth and operating plans for the global university network with 675,000 students in 28 countries.”
Before that, he worked for 16 years at Northwest Airlines and US Airways, including serving as executive vice president and chief financial officer.
If Cohen joins Metro, he will take over as general manager in one of Metrorail’s worst periods since the subway opened in 1976. He would face huge financial and operational challenges as he tries to restore public confidence in the troubled agency. And he would be under more intense scrutiny, perhaps, than any of his 14 predecessors dating to 1967, when the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority was established.
Struggling with rail safety problems and revenue woes, Metro has become in recent months the most closely monitored transit agency in the country, with heightened federal oversight; a board of directors that includes new members who routinely excoriate the agency for its shortcomings; and a hyper-attentive Washington-area congressional delegation whose constituents want a reliable transit system.
Among other difficulties that would await Cohen, the Federal Transit Administration has imposed financial restrictions on Metro until the agency rectifies problems involving its handling of federal grants. After a “safety management inspection” of Metro this year, the FTA also gave the agency a long list of operational problems to fix.
And the National Transportation Safety Board almost certainly will add to that list when it issues a final report on a fatal subway incident in January.
The selection of a new Metro top manager will culminate a sometimes tumultuous search process that began almost 14 months ago, when then-General Manager Richard Sarles announced his planned retirement. Members of Metro’s governing board initially said they were confident that a new chief executive would be hired by early this year to replace Sarles, who left the agency in January.
But revelations of severe financial and safety-related problems in Metro, and changes in top political leadership in the District and Virginia this year, led to a sharp divide among officials in the region over what type of chief executive Metro needed.
Considering the agency’s money woes, Maryland and D.C. officials asserted that the new general manager should be principally a financial turnaround expert. Virginia officials insisted that the foremost qualification for the job should be experience in running a public transportation agency and instilling a strong organizational safety culture.
The jurisdictions’ differing views were reflected in a sharp divide among Metro’s voting board members — two each representing the Maryland, District, Virginia and federal governments — and caused the search to drag on for months.
Since Jan. 12 — when an electrical malfunction near the L’Enfant Plaza station filled a Yellow Line tunnel with smoke, sickening scores of riders on a stalled train, one of whom died of respiratory failure — federal inquiries have revealed a variety of dangerous shortcomings in Metro’s rail network and management offices.
The problems involve faulty infrastructure, outmoded computer systems, deficiencies in employee training and an array of other issues, including Metro’s inferior safety culture and inadequate emergency readiness. The NTSB’s final report on the Jan. 12 calamity, which it plans to issue early next year, is likely to document even more problems that the next general manager will have to fix, at no small expense to the financially strapped agency.
Researcher Alice Crites contributed to this report.