AFTER 13 months of dithering and bickering, Metro seems on the verge of hiring a new permanent general manager. Should passengers be relieved that the agency will finally get new leadership or perplexed that the candidate on whom it has apparently settled is a financial wizard with no background in mass transit, no history working in the public sector and no experience as a chief executive?
That’s the profile of Neal S. Cohen, who’s been a top financial manager at big airlines and an aerospace firm, but never worked in an agency that runs buses, subways or trains. Metro’s board of directors, having decided that Mr. Cohen is the man for the job, is reported to be negotiating the terms of his contract.
At first blush, Mr. Cohen is a curious pick to lead the region’s troubled transit agency. Above all, he represents an experiment testing the proposition that Metro’s problems are so manifold, so deep and so unyielding that resolving them requires talent that transcends the narrow expertise of any transit professional.
That hypothesis is mainly untested. Most U.S. transit systems, and most major transit systems elsewhere, are run by transit pros. Hiring a former chief financial officer who helped preside over bankruptcies in the 2000s at US Airways and Northwest Airlines is not an immediately comprehensible move.
In part, it reflects Metro’s desperation following years of mismanagement, mishaps, fatal accidents and, more recently, an unforeseen drop in subway ridership. That string of failures has given rise to a conviction on some board members’ part that the agency needs a jolting dose of new thinking. That new thinking might be administered by an outside “turnaround specialist” such as Mr. Cohen, perhaps in conjunction with a new czar to rethink Metro’s future and strategy, whom the board is also seeking to hire.
His selection, if finalized, also reflects the determination by some board members that fixing the agency’s staggering financial problems is a precondition for broader reform. For more than a year, Metro has been on what amounts to financial probation, imposed by the Federal Transit Administration as the consequence of an array of money-management problems uncovered in 2014 by a federal audit. The result of that sanction is that Metro, in the course of drawing desperately needed federal funding, must jump through more hoops than virtually any other transit system in the United States. The restrictions have left Metro with severe cash-flow problems.
Perhaps Mr. Cohen is the right person to resolve that problem — along with consultants from McKinsey & Company and Ernst & Young, who have been hired on a nearly $3 million contract to propose an overhaul of Metro’s management and financial systems. But what experience on his résumé suggests he can fix the manifest shortcomings in Metro’s safety procedures and culture, the daily disruptions that bedevil commuters, the epidemic of broken escalators or even the unintelligible announcements broadcast by its pitiable public address system? The board’s answer is that Metro’s transit professionals can handle those details. Here’s hoping that’s right.