Given the series of worker and passenger deaths, train crashes, and other mishaps marring John Catoe’s three year tenure as Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority General Manager, many Metro riders understandably saw his recently-announced resignation as cause for celebration. But as the WMATA Board of Directors moves to appoint his replacement, the need for urgent reform has not dissipated. The board must find a capable public servant who has the drive and experience to clean up a once proud system that has become, in Catoe’s own words, a “poster boy for safety issues that other systems should avoid.”
Catoe swept into the top WMATA position with far-reaching promises of increased safety and reliability, but his record will be overshadowed by the June 22 rail crash on the red line that left nine people dead. Although federal authorities have not yet completed a final report on the crash, it has been widely reported that the red line’s crash avoidance system failed multiple times before the deadly accident.
According to The Washington Post, members of WMATA’s Board had urged Catoe to stay at the post in 2010—arguing that a change could be disruptive, and that Catoe had the management skills to lead Metro out of a tough time. But just last month, a Metro subway train nearly hit a team of inspectors evaluating safety conditions, indicating that Catoe has not done enough since the crash to remedy safety issues.
It will be difficult to find the right public servant to take charge of the D.C.-area’s public transit services. The Board must lead a careful, nationwide search for someone who can restore confidence in the safety and efficiency of Metro. The new General Manager will serve with a fresh executive team following the departure of Catoe’s top deputy, safety officer, and two other managers. This new leadership must receive full support from the WMATA Board and local governments in holding employees accountable, improving safety, and putting an end to the costly mistakes of the past few years.
In announcing his resignation, Catoe somewhat smugly stated that, “good leaders know to impact change. Great leaders know when it’s time for leadership change.” It is indeed time for a leadership change, and we hope Catoe’s successor will restore Metro’s proud tradition of safe, convenient service.