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Posted at 10:00 AM ET, 02/17/2011

Benjamin to leave Metro board

By Washington Post Editors

benjamin21711.jpg Peter Benjamin during a National Transportation Safety Board hearing last year that examined the deadly 2009 Red Line crash, which killed nine people and injured dozens. (By Bill O'Leary / The Washington Post)

[This post has been updated]

Metro board member Peter Benjamin is stepping down from the transit authority's governing panel, the latest in a series of changes where several members with years of experience have departed.

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley intends to nominate former Congressman Michael D. Barnes to replace Benjamin, who was asked to step down by state Transportation Secretary Beverley Swaim-Staley last week. Benjamin announced his surprise departure at a governance committee meeting of Metro's board Thursday.

"Mike Barnes brings a wealth of public and private sector experience to the [Metro] board as the organization transitions to a new form of governance, the leadership of a new general manager and the addition of new board members from our neighboring jurisdictions," O'Malley said in a statement. "He has witnessed the evolution of Metro since its earliest days and was a strong supporter ... during his time in Congress. He understands Metro's past and has a clear vision of where the organization needs to go in the future regarding the key issues of safety, customer service and the maintenance of the system."

Barnes, who lives with his wife in Chevy Chase, is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy. He was in Congress in from 1978 through 1987. The Maryland Senate must approve his nomination before he can replace Benjamin, who O'Malley thanked for his service.

Benjamin just completed a one-year term as chairman of the board of directors and was a Maryland representative. Over 20 years Benjamin also worked on Metro's staff, serving as the agency's chief financial officer, director of planning and senior financial adviser. He served as mayor of Garrett Park from 1996-2000 and 2002-04.

The news of Benjamin's departure comes as the agency wrestles with what its governing structure should look like. Two reports last year criticized the setup as outmoded, lacking accountability and transparency, and overly involved in day-to-day decisions. Some of the changes occurred as new elected officials sought to put their stamp on the board. But several members last year acknowledged frustration at serving in the time-consuming position for little or no pay or public appreciation.

Board members cannot be paid by Metro, according to the compact that governs the transit agency. The jurisdictions provide widely varying compensation, with Maryland providing $20,000 a year to voting board members, Virginia $50 per meeting, and the District nothing, board members said.

Last month the board voted in a new chairwoman, Catherine Hudgins of Fairfax, who replaced Benjamin. The board also gained four new members: former Amtrak head Tom Downs of the District; Arlington County Board Vice Chair Mary Hynes; D.C. Council member Tommy Wells; and former Takoma Park mayor Kathy Porter.

Board member Elizabeth Hewlett of Maryland, whose term is up, is also seeking to step down. She said Thursday that Maryland is "closer" to finding her replacement.

The board is supposed to consist of eight members and eight alternates from the District, Maryland, Virginia and the federal government. The federal government, which appointed its first two members in 2010 as part of an agreement to provide dedicated capital funding to Metro, still needs to appoint two alternates and has never had a full complement on the board.

Metro General Manager Richard Sarles, who was hired on an interim basis last spring, was also named last month to the permanent job. He also gained the title of chief executive officer, a move intended to convey the authority of the position and one urged by the two reports issued last fall.

Metro has spent much of the past 18 months trying to move beyond a series of fatal accidents that killed several workers and the tragic 2009 Red Line crash, where eight passengers died. In its final report on the accident, the National Transportation Safety Board
criticized the lack of a safety culture at Metro and described the accident as "inevitable" given the shortcomings at the agency.

By Washington Post Editors  | February 17, 2011; 10:00 AM ET
Categories:  Metro  
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Mr. Benjamin deserves a round of appreciation for his service on the WMATA Board. He's a transit professional, and he's been a thoughtful member (unlike some of the local politicians on the Board).

He showed appropriate responsiveness when the NTSB and others delivered scathing reports on Metro's dismal safety record. (That's in sharp contrast to Jim Graham's shameful "it's not my fault" speech.)

And Mr. Benjamin was willing to propose some much-needed budget savings last year (although self-serving politicians Graham and Zimmerman blocked his efforts).

His decision to step down and allow a "clean slate" for the new General Manager reflects a gracious style. The new chairman (Ms. Hudgins of Fairfax County) should follow Mr. Benjamin's example, by stepping down to allow a new member for Virginia, and a new "clean slate" leader for the WMATA Board.

Posted by: jrmil | February 17, 2011 1:20 PM | Report abuse

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