Metro board members discuss Catoe, service, fares
Metro board members Jim Graham, Peter Benjamin and Chris Zimmerman -- one each from the D.C. region's three main jurisdictions -- discussed General Manager John B. Catoe Jr.'s resignation, the current state of the transit system and the challenges ahead during an hour interview this morning on WTOP radio.
On Catoe's resignation
Graham, of the District: It challenges us pretty much on every front. "The metro board was quite surprised at this decision," learning of it only on Thursday, the day Catoe announced it to the board and the public.
Benjamin, of Maryland: (Who's going to be elected board chairman next week, succeeding Graham.) The board is going to have to come up with an interim general manager, but is still organizing its thoughts on that. Until April 2, we've got a general manger, Catoe. After that, the interim general manager will take over, during a national and international search for a permanent successor that is likely to last six to nine months.
Zimmerman, of Virginia: Responding to a question, he said Metro would not have been better served if Catoe left right away. This at least allows for a smoother transition. It means somebody is in charge. "In a difficult situation, that's a relative good point," he said of Catoe's decision to remain till April 2.
Graham: "There's no golden parachute in this case. His resignation is 100 percent voluntary." He leaves with his retirement health insurance and whatever he contributed to his annuity.
Zimmerman: "He absolutely helped this agency." When people look back, they'll see that progress was made. We had an agency that was having a lot of problems three years ago. "Even in safety, tremendous progress was made."
Of the Red Line crash, still under federal investigation, he said, "I think we'll find it had nothing to do with management ... that it had to do with a piece of old equipment."
Graham: Keeping the track monitors off the track "was a bad decision" by a former Metro safety official. (He didn't blame Catoe for it.) "The board, to its credit, reversed that."
On filling the job
Graham: Expressed confidence there will be many qualified candidates. "It's very clear already that the job is not going to go begging. ... There's a wonderful challenge here for the right person .. There's going to be a very strong interest in this position."
On Metro board
Zimmerman: "I think the Metro board actually functions fairly well and has for 40 years."
Graham: "This is not a micromanaging board."
On fares and service
Zimmerman: "It's going to be a harder year," but "I'm concerned where we're going to be a year or two from now." So far, we've had a fairly small decline in ridership. "I want to make sure we don't driver more riders away," by cutting service and increasing fares. (Board members and Metro staff generally attribute the decline in ridership to the recession. Fewer people are commuting because there are fewer jobs.)
[During the discussion, some of the underlying disagreements among the reps of the different jurisdictions emerged. Graham, a longtime board member, always has been reluctant to discuss fare hikes and service cuts. He doesn't want to get people riled up. Other board members focus publicly on the big gap between revenue and expenses, not just in the current budget year, ending June 30, but also the much bigger gap for the year starting July 1.]
Benjamin: The general manager forsees a need for $92 million in revenue from a fare increase" in the year starting July 1. Think about how big a fare increase that might be, he said. The 10 cent surcharge the board could impose for March-June would generate about $10 million over those four months. A fare increase for the year starting in July could be at least three times the size of the surcharge the board is looking at now.
Graham: "There are other options." He said he was very uncomfortable talking about big fare increases or service cuts. There hasn't been a big service reduction in the District as long as he's been on the board, he said. (In fact, Graham is quite proud of service increases -- late night service, expanded Yellow Line service -- that have occurred while he's been on the board.) "We're going to have to look at all options here."
Zimmerman: "The real issue is the next fiscal year, which begins July 1." That budget gap is "going to be a lot harder to close" than the $40 million gap in the current year. There may be a "significant increase in fares overall or a not insignificant decrease in service."
Graham: "There could not be a fare increase of sufficient size to cover the gap we're looking at" in the fiscal year starting July 1. Metro must look at a variety of options for closing the gap.
January 20, 2010; 11:03 AM ET
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