METRO’S BOARD, which oversees all bus and rail operations, is cracking the whip on a transit system whose sundry mishaps, breakdowns and fatal accidents imperil not only passengers but also the vitality and prospects of the Washington area itself. Convinced that the status quo is no longer viable, the board has determined that nothing short of a corporate, cultural and managerial overhaul will suffice.
Trying something new is a reasonable reaction given Metro’s sorry trajectory. The trouble is that the board — whose frustration boiled over Thursday in an extraordinarily public verbal pummeling of the agency’s safety chief, James Dougherty, who was promptly ousted — has given no indication that it has a clear idea what the new “something” should be.
Nor does the board seem to expect that a new general manager, who may be hired in the coming months, more than a year after the last one resigned, will be capable of setting the agency on a new course.
For that, the board moved Thursday toward seeking a sort of Czar of Metro’s Future — a firm, possibly led by some high-profile individual, that would restructure the agency as well as reimagine Metro’s governance, finance and bylaws.
How that firm or individual would interact with the actual general manager, while at the same time devising and implementing a “new” Metro over the course of a year or two, is anybody’s guess. To restructuring gurus, it may sound workable on paper; in the real world, it may contain the seeds of massive disruption. (And keep in mind that Metro is already in the process of hiring a major consulting firm to overhaul the transit system’s day-to-day operations.)
In the meantime, tongue-lashings of senior managers may be a satisfying way to give vent to the board’s exasperation; it may also be a means of reinforcing the message to Metro’s rank-and-file that the board takes accountability seriously, and that heads will roll in the event of preventable calamities.
In the case of Mr. Dougherty, the safety chief who resigned, the preventable calamity was last month’s derailment of a six-car (and, thankfully, passenger-free) train, which jumped the tracks after a technician somehow overlooked a serious rail defect that had been detected four weeks earlier. The derailment, in the heart of downtown, played havoc with the morning commute.
The downside to Mr. Dougherty’s public dressing-down and defenestration is that Metro, whose board chairman has already publicly fretted that the agency may not be able to attract suitable candidates for its long-vacant general manager’s job, may also face problems recruiting a new safety chief. The job’s potential downside is clear — but what’s the upside?
The board, infused with new members, especially from the District, is convinced that nothing short of radical reform is necessary. To achieve that reform, it is leaning toward hiring corporate turnaround wizards — probably including a new general manager — who would be super-imposed on the actual transit technocrats who traditionally have made the trains run at Metro.
It’s hard to know whether that approach is a recipe for a culture war or a cure for the nation’s second-biggest metropolitan rail transit system. The board is right to be concerned; it would also be wise to proceed with caution.