So the "big" management shakeup happened late Friday, and as with most high profile games of musical chairs played by other large, failing organizations, it's not likely to make much of a difference.
One need only look to Metro's abysmal safety record or ride a delayed, creaky, stop-and-go train a few times to see that the system is rotting. From the upper echelons all the way down to the bus driver who--incredibly--thinks it's OK to leave a full bus parked along the side of the road while he saunters off for some KFC, it feels more and more like a transit agency that has lost its way.
During last Friday's excellent online chat with Greater Greater Washington's Michael Perkins, Metro Board member Chris Zimmerman was asked the inevitable question about whether Metro GM John Catoe should be fired. Zimmerman, like the Washington Post, supported Catoe and pointed out that Metro's problems run much deeper than the GM, and, we would presume if that logic is applied, a few reshuffled senior staffers.
"It is very important to recognize that the problems WMATA has are not new, they did not arise when Mr. Catoe arrived less than three years ago, and no one has credibly suggested that he has somehow caused them. On the contrary, the fundamental problems at WMATA are related to long-standing underfunding of its capital needs — inadequate maintenance and replacement, insufficient investment in new equipment, "stretchouts" of the capital program, etc. Every GM and the Board has warned the region about the consequences of this for years."One such warning came in an eerily prescient 2005 Associated Press interview with former WMATA CEO Richard White, who said Metro was heading into a "transit death spiral" within three years.
"When that happens you can't get out of the spiral," White said. "You're going to have service everyday, but you're going to have many days that are going to feel like a transit day from hell."
So, what has Metro management and the Board been doing over the decades besides warning?
Catoe and leadership before him shouldn't be paid handsomely to merely to warn, kick the can down the road and stick their fingers into dikes. Instead, they should be working to build political support for WMATA, to tackle the big issues, to negotiate fair but sustainable deals with labor, to make safety the number one priority, to make tough calls, to say 'no' to politicians who want a bigger Metro but refuse to pay for it, to stand up those who may not have Metro's long term best interest in mind.
But instead it seems Metro is constantly examining, looking into, studying, and considering, but seldom acting. If they're doing more, it's certainly not being communicated.
This is a failure not only of Catoe and Zimmerman, but of the authority leadership for decades. They've all known very well the precarious funding purgatory in which WMATA exists, yet over the years they allowed a system to be created that is unsustainable in that atmosphere.
Where has the leadership been?
Zimmerman brings up a great example of Metro's inaction later in the interview when discussing the budget gap, which now stands at $175 million.
"Unfortunately, there isn't much in the good ole 'waste,fraud, & abuse' line to cut," he said. "And all the 'easy' stuff has been done the last two years."
Does Metro only do the "easy" stuff?
He then immediately said "a recent WMATA study indicates that improving average bus speed from 10 mph to 13 mph on a set of routes could lower annual cost by $40 or $50 million.
This of course depends upon cooperation from the highway departments."
They're just now studying this? What is WMATA waiting for? Get it done. Push, prod, cajole. Lead!
Zimmerman also stated that another possibility to save money "includes proposals that would adjust MetroAccess to something closer to the federally-mandated level of service."
They've known MetroAccess was an exploding budget line item for a long time, and yet they still offer expensive service beyond what's required.
WMATA says curbing the service to federal mandates could save $2.8 million per year. That's not a huge amount compared to the $175 gap Metro faces, but we wonder how many other $40 million and $2.8 million items Metro is hemming and hawing about.
Acccording to News Channel 8, the Senate last night passed legislation that would provide the dedicated funding the authority has so long sought. If finally signed by the president, it will be interesting to see how Metro management conducts business without the dead horse of no dedicated funding to beat.
Jackie Jeter letter to the editor (WaPo)