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Virginia tells Metro to accelerate search for a general manager

Virginia Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne addresses the Commonwealth Transportation Board at its meeting in Tysons Corner. (Robert Thomson – The Washington Post)
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Virginia’s transportation secretary appears to be running out of patience with Metro’s protracted search for a new general manager, telling the transit agency in a letter Tuesday that he is “greatly concerned” about how long the process is taking, and warning, “Continued inaction on this matter is unacceptable.”

“It is imperative that the system have a permanent General Manager at the helm to address the critical safety, management and operational issues of the agency,” Aubrey L. Layne said his letter to Mortimer L. Downey, chairman of Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s board of directors.

“In the current environment in which WMATA finds itself struggling on so many fronts, including in the court of public opinion, it is important that the agency take visible steps forward toward securing the services of a permanent General Manager,” Layne wrote.

Buffeted by criticism over its financial and performance woes, the beleaguered transit agency has been overseen by an interim chief executive since former general manager Richard Sarles retired in January. Changes in political leadership in Maryland the District — two of Metro’s controlling jurisdictions, along with Virginia and the federal government — have complicated the board’s search for a replacement.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser both took office at the start of the year, around the time that a fatal calamity rocked the transit agency. Scores of subway passengers were sickened, and one died, after an electrical malfunction Jan. 12 caused a Yellow Line tunnel to fill with smoke, an incident that exposed numerous shortcomings with Metro’s infrastructure and emergency readiness.

With deep financial problems in the agency also coming to light in recent months, friction has developed on the Metro board involving new members appointed by Hogan and Bowser and holdovers from previous administrations. Some think the next general manager should be a financial turnaround specialist while others want a traditional transit executive who is grounded in engineering.

“I don’t think anybody disagrees with the premise that we need a person who can shake up the place and bring about improvement,” Downey said in an interview Tuesday after receiving Layne’s letter. “But there are different ways to do it. And we haven’t been able to reach a consensus on that.”

The Washington Post reported in March that Bowser and Hogan want a turnaround specialist to shake up Metro. Meanwhile, Layne’s boss, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), agrees that “a change agent” is needed but would accept a traditional transit executive, Layne said at the time.

[Search for new general manager exposes major rift among board members]

Now Layne is sounding frustrated. “We cannot allow parochial sentiments or ideological spats to hinder this process and, in turn, the safety and stability of this critical system,” he wrote. “Further inaction does not serve the public’s interest.”

A spokeswoman for Maryland Transportation Secretary Peter K. Rahn said Tuesday that Rahn also is eager for the board to hire a new chief executive.

“Starting with Governor Hogan’s appointment of a legal and budgetary expert to the [Metro] board in April, Maryland has taken every step possible to get a new General Manager with a strong financial and transportation background as quickly as possible,”  spokeswoman Erin Henson said in an e-mail. She was referring to new Metro board member Keturah Denise Harley.

A spokeswoman for the District’s top transportation official, Leif A. Dormsjo, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Dormsjo is a Bowser appointee on the Metro board.

Before new members arrived this year, the board began searching for Sarles’s replacement after he announced his impending retirement in September. Members appeared on the verge of hiring a new chief executive in February before the process collapsed amid disagreements involving newly appointed members.

“We understand that the Board members are continuing to discuss the necessary requirements for the next General Manager in an attempt to reach a consensus,” Layne wrote. “We appreciate that many Board members hold strong beliefs about the type of person that must be brought in to run agency.”

However, he said, “Now is the time for the WMATA board members to put aside any regional or philosophical differences and take concrete steps to move the selection process forward.”

Downey said that members are continuing to hash out the wording of a job description, before authorizing an executive search firm to begin recruiting candidates. The job description used in last fall’s search is no longer viable, he said, because some new members want the description to emphasize financial skills. The board has been working for weeks to draft “a better description,” Downey said.

“We’re still in the process of trying to agree on that, which I hope to do at a board retreat in the middle of June,” he said. “We’re just going to get out of the building to some conference facility in the area — not to some Caribbean island.” He added, “It is going slow. And I would like to see it go quicker.”

So would Layne.

“It is apparent that only a new, bold, dynamic leader will be able to right the ship and regain the trust of the public,” he wrote. “Unfortunately those tasks become more difficult with each passing day.”