Metro General Manager John Catoe will be ending his three year tenure at the transit agency on Friday, but his legacy will be debated for a while yet. As he transitions to the world of transit consulting, there’s a natural break for us to look back at Metro and at his tenure.
During his three years at the helm, there were many positive changes. The Metro system saw huge, record breaking number of trips during Obama’s inauguration, 1.12 million on the rails in one day (PDF), and performed admirably. Also during Catoe’s tenure, Metrorail stopped using four car trains (though they kept threatening to go back to them).
But positive is not how most people will look back on Metro’s last three years. Catoe oversaw the deadliest and most accident filled years in Metro’s history. We’re all painfully aware of the impact of the June 22, 2009 accident which left 9 people dead and the system on the brink. But despite an increase in focus on safety, there were three incidents which killed four Metro employees after that date, and a derailment earlier this year. And let’s not even mention the number of accidents and deaths caused by Metrobus.
Obviously, Catoe didn’t cause these accidents. He did try to change the WMATA’s culture by firing responsible senior managers, and by placing many mid-level managers on notice that there would be no second chances when it comes to safety. As anyone who has ever had to deal with entrenched culture could tell you, changing people’s ways of thinking is not a simple process.
For me, Catoe was at his best in the immediate aftermath of the June 22 crash on the Red line. He appeared on the scene, taking charge and being fairly calm, just what you want from a leader. But in the aftermath, his calm demeanor seemed to turn lackadaisical, and Metro seemed to become more closed, more at war with the media.
Communication is one of the things that a good leader needs to be able to do well. You cannot be seen to be at war with the Washington Post, for instance, especially when the Post had well sourced reporting. Catoe did tell the board at their farewell meeting last week that his advice for his replacement, former New Jersey Transit head Richard Sarles, is to “communicate, do your details and focus on the major issues.”
“There are things that I wish that would have turned out slightly different,” Catoe told the board. “There’s no question about that. All I could do was the best that I could do.”
There is no question that if the June 22 accident had not happened, Catoe’s tenure would have been different. But it is times of crisis that define leaders, and on that count, I don’t think his leadership qualities rose to occasion. It’ll be interesting to see how Sarles handles the challenges and political climate of running DC’s transit system.