To get a sense of the fractious relationship among Metro board members, one need only look back to a year ago when mutual disdain between old and new leaders boiled over after a tense meeting with D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser and other city officials.
Board members Mortimer L. Downey and Tom Downs had just sat through a blistering critique of how they had allowed the transit agency to slide into a deep financial hole.
Afterward, according to participants, Bowser’s newly named transportation director, Leif A. Dormsjo, told Downey and Downs what he thought of their record.
“You’ve got your head in the sand,” said Dormsjo, who was about to join the Metro board as an alternate member.
“You should get your head out of your ass,” Downs replied.
“Your reputation is in tatters,” Dormsjo continued.
“Well, at least I have one,” said Downs, a former president of Amtrak who left the Metro board soon afterward.
The exchange summed up a bitter rift in Metro’s governing body that started when a wave of new members began to transform the agency’s leadership. One of the newcomers, D.C. Council member Jack Evans, was elected Thursday to be the board’s chairman.
One consequence of the split was 10 months of internal turmoil that effectively paralyzed the transit agency as it struggled to deal with a fatal smoke incident, the hiring of a new general manager, increased federal scrutiny of its finances, and numerous safety lapses and chronic service disruptions. At closed-door meetings, board members repeatedly engaged in heated exchanges, which became personal at times, many said.
But another result appears to be a new commitment by the board to do more to hold the agency’s management accountable, especially on finances and safety.
The newcomers, led by representatives of the District — including Dormsjo and Evans — quickly decided that the board had been too lax in its oversight of the administration of former general manager Richard Sarles. They formed an alliance with a Maryland board member, Michael Goldman, who had felt that way for months.
The faction of insurgents began by faulting the previous board for financial missteps, which had endangered the agency’s cash flow. Their disapproval jumped after the deadly Jan. 12, 2015, smoke incident in a tunnel outside the L’Enfant Plaza station that left one person dead and scores injured.
That calamity, plus a derailment in August involving a track defect that had been detected a month earlier, revealed safety concerns that had gone unheeded.
The old board had become “a fan club of the general manager,” said new board member Corbett A. Price, whom Bowser nominated in the expectation that he would be a change agent. “You can’t just let management come in and do their dog-and-pony show without challenging them. We were appropriately quite aggressive.”
On the other side were several board members representing Virginia and the federal government. They were led by Downey, a veteran transportation executive at the end of a distinguished career. He joined the board in 2010 and became chairman a year ago.
Downey and his supporters argued that the new members were exaggerating the agency’s financial problems, overlooking the previous board’s accomplishments, and ruining the panel’s effectiveness with their divisive rhetoric and tactics.
By the end of the year, the insurgents had achieved many of their goals. They reined in borrowing to help balance the books. They stalled the system’s expansion plans to focus on safety and reliability. They pushed out the chief safety officer, whom they saw as incompetent.
They also made life so miserable for Downey that he decided not to seek reelection as chairman.
They did so partly by raising questions about what they saw as a conflict of interest between his work on the board and a consulting deal he had with a Metro contractor. It resulted in an ethics investigation that he deeply resented, but he was ultimately cleared.
“I don’t need the aggravation,” Downey, 79, said in an interview. “Some of the new board members were rushing in and saying . . . ‘Basically, you are a crook.’ ”
He concluded, “I’ve had a good, long career, and this is not the way I’d like to bring it to an end. I’m very unhappy.”
Downey’s successor, Evans, has indicated that he plans to continue to press for change.
But he and the other insurgents came up short in 2015 in several important ways. In particular, they failed to install a financial-turnaround specialist as the new general manager.
They fought hard to get someone who would do a thorough housecleaning at Metro, including replacing many executives. Price was fond of saying at board meetings some version of: “Everyone needs to be replaced. We need to start all over again.”
The newcomers succeeded in persuading a majority of the board’s eight voting members to pick a former aerospace and airline executive, Neal S. Cohen, as their first choice for general manager. He had pared staff and achieved savings in previous positions.
But Cohen dropped out of the running in November after his candidacy was leaked to the media. The board settled for its second choice, Paul J. Wiedefeld, who previously headed Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport.
Wiedefeld was viewed as having a good record but not as being the kind of transformational figure the insurgents originally sought. They went along with him partly to avoid adding to the embarrassing delay in making the decision.
“It wasn’t the choice I wanted, but it was a good second choice,” said a board member who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the selection process was confidential. “Technically, [Wiedefeld] is very good. But he’s a little too laid-back.”
The newcomers’ combative style also spoiled what several board members said had been a collaborative atmosphere that helped foster the compromises necessary to get things done.
Mary Hynes, who represented Virginia on the board from 2011 through 2015, walked out of a meeting last spring in protest. She was angry at what she saw as the newcomers’ relentless, unconstructive criticism.
“It was months of sitting in these meetings and listening to them run down our leadership and work without offering any alternative solutions,” said Hynes, who also was a member of the Arlington County Board at the time.
Price said such bad feelings were unavoidable.
“The architects who were around during the disaster aren’t the architects who can save it,” Price said. “New people coming on and challenging them, they sometimes take a personal affront.”
Downey and others expressed hope that the agreement on a new general manager means the board will be more manageable this year.
But some members expressed concern that Evans also would find it hard to unite the group. They cited his strong criticism of past board actions, desire for publicity and occasionally high-handed style.
Evans has said he will seek to be the public face of Metro. Some board members think that should be Wiedefeld’s role.
A board member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the selection process, was critical of Downey and Evans.
“Under Mort, there was absolutely no consequence for bad behavior,” the member said, but the member added that Evans and his allies had been “destructive, obstructionist.” The board member also faulted Evans for being impulsive: “He’s a diva — ready, fire, aim.”
Evans, asked by a reporter after his election whether he was too “sharp-elbowed” to lead the board, said he had demonstrated in a quarter-century on the 13-member D.C. Council that he can assemble a majority.
“I am viewed as a person who knows how to count to seven, who can get the number of votes that are needed and can actually bring everybody along,” said Evans (D-Ward 2). That was “a great skill set to bring to a 16-member board with a lot of different personalities,” he said.
Perhaps the biggest single event contributing to the Metro board’s shake-up was the inauguration of Bowser as mayor. Two of her nominees to the board, Price and Dormsjo, were among the most forceful critics of the old regime.
Their contentious approach surprised some board members, because Bowser had been a member before becoming mayor and expressed little or no concern then about the agency’s direction.
Bowser has said that she, like most board members during her tenure, was unaware of the growing financial stresses, since the agency was getting clean audits each year. It later turned out that the audits were flawed, leading to a prolonged revision of the books. Metro reached a milestone last month when it finally got up to date in its financial reports.
But after Bowser was inaugurated, D.C. Chief Financial Officer Jeffrey S. DeWitt convinced her that Metro was headed for insolvency unless it repaired its finances. He was concerned partly that Metro’s aggressive borrowing plans would weaken the District’s financial standing, since the city helps cover Metro’s costs.
That led Bowser to nominate Price to the board. She knew his record in private business in restructuring companies, a task that often involved replacing top management and cutting costs.
“We wanted a real change agent, and that was Corbett [Price],” said John Falcicchio, Bowser’s chief of staff.
Some board members believe that Bowser also wanted to defuse potential political criticism that she had been negligent as a member and thus bore some responsibility for the L’Enfant Plaza accident.
Falcicchio disputed that. “When something’s not safe, that’s not a political calculation — that’s a good-governance issue,” he said.
In another important change, Bowser’s selection of Dormsjo to head the city’s Transportation Department had the side effect of bringing in a longtime skeptic of Metro’s management.
Dormsjo previously was a senior executive at the Maryland Department of Transportation, which historically has been critical of Metro’s finances. That’s partly because Maryland looks for ways to save money on Metro to free up funds for other transportation priorities, such as Baltimore’s transit system.
Price, Dormsjo and Evans formed an alliance with Goldman, who before 2015 was the only board member who consistently challenged the majority, board members said.
Goldman did so partly because he was concerned that the board was pushing to commit Metro to spend billions of dollars to expand the system at a time when ridership was declining. His effort to curb the agency’s ambitions fit well with the thinking of Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R), who won election in 2014 after campaigning to shift spending from transit to roads.
By contrast, Virginia favors expanding Metro, especially by instituting all eight-car trains on all lines during rush hour. Among other things, that would allow Metro to squeeze more passengers through a major choke point: the Potomac tunnel between the Rosslyn and Foggy Bottom-GWU stations.
The District favors expansion, in principle, but its new board members didn’t want to commit to it while the agency’s finances were so uncertain. The result was a decision last year to indefinitely delay the plan, which would cost about $2 billion.
Downey acknowledged that the previous board came up short in significant ways. But he and his defenders also point to what they say are genuine achievements.
It was during his time on the board, for example, that the panel began rebuilding the system and improving the board’s governance procedures after a 2009 Red Line crash that killed nine people.
Downey, too, was viewed as a change agent when the federal government named him to the board. He had an impressive résumé, having served both as deputy secretary of transportation in the Clinton administration and as executive director of New York’s transit system.
As head of the board’s safety committee, Downey helped oversee the agency’s efforts to resolve problems identified by the National Transportation Safety Board after the 2009 Red Line crash.
By 2014, both the NTSB and Federal Transit Administration were praising Metro for improving its safety culture.
But the accolades ended abruptly with the L’Enfant Plaza smoke incident. It showed that despite the agency’s ongoing, $5 billion effort to repair and modernize the system, and all its public talk about the importance of safety, persistent problems remained with staffing procedures, communications and monitoring.
“What’s troubling is that our focus for four years had been on safety,” Downey said. “One afternoon, and it’s gone.”
Board members said part of the problem was that Sarles, the general manager until he retired a year ago, was an engineer focused mainly on equipment and hardware. He didn’t ensure that safety-mindedness was instilled through all levels of the bureaucracy, and the board didn’t see the failure.
“We should have been a lot tougher on fundamental management systems going in place that we could rely on,” Downey said.
He and others also said Sarles paid too little attention to finances. Again, the board didn’t catch it.
“If there’s anything for which I fault myself, it’s not holding senior management more accountable about detailed issues around management of finances,” Downs said.
Sarles declined to comment for this article.
Overall, Downey said that although Metro made advances since he joined the board, he could understand why the new members were so critical.
“Given the bad year we’ve had, it’s not surprising that some people would say, ‘It has to be on the chairman’s radar screen, and it’s his failure,’ ” Downey said. “Do I think that? No. Do I think I’m part of it? Yes.”