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John Catoe had to go.
Over the past year, and certainly after the June 22 Red Line tragedy, an undeniable chasm developed on the subject of Catoe’s performance as Metro’s general manager.
The people who use Metro and comment on it from arms’ length—-those not engaged in day-to-day reporting on the system—-have been scathingly critical of Catoe, blaming him for a degrading system, if not the accident itself. Folks with more knowledge of Metro operations—-journalists, politicos, administrators, and, of course, WMATA’s own board members—-more or less stood by Catoe, arguing that he did awfully well with the lousy hand he’d been dealt. Plus, they invariably argued, who else would take the job?
Well, now they have to find someone else to take the job, and that divide bodes ill for the system’s next general manager.
So allow LL to ponder the headhunting challenge of our time: Who in the hell would want to take this job?
Consider what the next Metro GM will have to deal with: (a) the worst fiscal crisis in Metro’s history, necessitating drastic fare hikes and service cuts; (b) aging infrastructure coupled with pressure to tap the capital budget to cover operating deficits; (c) no solution in sight to the system’s funding quandaries (the $300 million in federal/state money helps, but it doesn’t solve the dedicated-funding problem); (d) broad rider satisfaction and distrust, not to mention local politicians and senators breathing down your neck; (e) a board dysfunctional by design, constructed in a manner that both indulges regional parochialism and inflames interjurisdictional strife (soon to be heightened by the addition of federal representation).
Today in an phone interview with NewsChannel 8’s Bruce DePuyt, Metro board chair Jim Graham said this about WMATA’s next general manager: “It’s going to take an extraordinary human being. It’s going to take somebody who’s seasoned in terms of transportation issues but who also has a proven track record of dealing with the types of major challenges that John and the rest of us have had to deal with.”
Setting aside the question of whether such a person even exists, LL doubts that person would jump at a Metro job.
Say you’re a talented transit manager. You’re running a mid-sized system or perhaps you’ve got a senior post in a large system or government. You’re in your 40s, maybe early 50s. You’ve got kids in school, mortgage and college tuition to pay. You’re doing a good job, your bosses are happy with you, but you’re itching for a new challenge.
Do you give all that up to move to Washington given (a) through (e) above?
The truth is: If Metro finds a talented leader, it will be the result of luck more than anything else.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, in a statement on Catoe’s departure, has it pretty much right: “[C]onsidering the perfect storm of a recession, decreasing ridership, increasing capital costs and the need for new revenue, Metro will be fortunate, indeed, to find a new General Manager not only equal to the task, but desirous of taking it on.”