- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 14, 2006

With Dan Tangherlini leaving his position as interim general manager of Metro to take over the responsibilities of city manager in the new Fenty administration, the Metro board of directors needs to move quickly to bring its choice for new general manager on board. Metro spent close to a year under the stewardship of an able but provisional manager, and the organization needs a leader with a long-term vision who is also in a position to implement it. The board’s preference is John B. Catoe Jr., deputy CEO of Metro’s counterpart in Los Angeles. The new general manager will take over as the mass transit system enters a new chapter. “Our job was to build it,” Mr. Tangherlini told editors and reporters at The Washington Times earlier this year. “Our role is now to run it.”

Of the challenges that the new general manager will face, attracting new employees to replenish an aging workforce will be high on the list. Replacing the one-third of Metro employees that will soon be eligible for retirement will prove difficult, as will retaining new workers who are lured away by more competitive salaries elsewhere.

Higher gas prices send more commuters into Metro’s rail system, which helps Metro offset the increase in operating expenses that comes with higher energy costs. Metro has also been strained by increasing ridership — a trend that is certain to continue — and that will present new challenges for the new GM. Simply running the system adequately requires around 40 to 50 new rail cars each year in addition to renewing the bus fleet. Expanding capacity within the current system will require an even greater investment, as will expansion of the system out to Dulles airport over the next decade.

All of this comes back to questions of funding. Efforts to secure a dedicated source of funding, a mechanism that Mr. Tangherlini believed would be a very important and useful financing tool, will most likely remain the central focus in this discussion, but it should not be the only method of improving funding that Metro considers. Winning support from both Annapolis and Richmond has thwarted previous efforts, and hopes that such an agreement can be reached is not a reliable way for Metro to deal with its chronic budget shortfalls. Raising fares for Metro rail, as the board did in 2003 and 2004, should be considered as a viable measure to improve the system’s fiscal outlook. After all, Metro is a pay-as-you-go bus and rail service, and it offers costly services to handicapped passengers and commuters.

The principle that more riders countervail increased operating expenses holds true only until Metro needs to expand service, at which point fare increases are necessary. The outgoing interim general manager was reluctant to broach the topic of raising fares with the Metro board of directors. The new general manager should be more willing to take that proposal to the Metro board of directors when the situation warrants.

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