Friday, January 15, 2010

Catoe's replacement will face major hurdles

Crossposted at Greater Greater Washington

BloggerRoundtable_01John Catoe shocked Washington yesterday with the announcement of his resignation. Perhaps none were as surprised as the region's transit bloggers, many of whom had had a candid discussion with Metro's now-outgoing GM the evening before.

The announcement has been met with both cheer and sadness. Many have called for Mr. Catoe to resign since shortly after the June 22 Metro crash which killed 9 on the Red Line. Citing problems such as increasingly unreliable service, crowded trains and platforms, and proposals for major service cuts, detractors have called for the 'Queen of Hearts solution'. But if anyone expects Metro's problems to be solved with the sudden absence of Mr. Catoe, they're sorely mistaken. Metro still faces what may be the most difficult crisis of its existence, and at this point, we can't yet see the light at the end of the tunnel.

At the forefront of the crisis is the economic recession gripping the country. It, not Mr. Catoe, is responsible for the budget woes. Barring a windfall donation of funds from the jurisdictions, Metro just doesn't have the money to cover the budget. It is likely that a combination of fare increases and service cuts will be used to plug the hole. But the $40 million gap for this fiscal year is a fraction of the budget hole we'll see next year, according to projections. And it looks like Metro will have an interim or brand new manager to shepherd the system through the next budget process.

Of course, the rail system isn't getting any younger. Each day that passes means that older parts of the fleet are more likely to break down, and the only solution is to order new railcars. According to Mr. Catoe, Metro hopes to let a contract to replace the 1000 series trainsets this spring. But the process of building over 300 railcars will take several years, so relief will not be quick in coming on that front. It remains to be seen whether the search for a new general manager will delay Board action on that front.

Metro is also in the midst of rebuilding the Red Line, coming up with fixes for the Automatic Train Control system, and an NTSB investigation. Management changes and potential staff cuts are going to hurt the agency's ability to deal as effectively with some issues. This seems like a particularly rough time for Metro to be without clear leadership.

Yet Mr. Catoe demonstrated considerable political adroitness with his decision to resign. Whether fairly so or not, blame for many of Metro's problems had been laid on his shoulders, and he had become a distraction to the Board, the staff, and the region. His departure might help enable the region move forward, but it does not ease the severity of the crisis or the urgency with which WMATA must respond.

The Board will soon begin searching for Mr. Catoe's replacement. It won't be an easy search. Whoever the Board decides to hire will need to be ready to face these problems head on, and they have to be prepared to take the fall for the agency when the next crisis happens.

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