- The Washington Times - Friday, February 23, 2007

Native Washingtonian John B. Catoe Jr. returned home as the new general manager of Metro with his priority set: instituting a culture of safety throughout the system. Several events in recent months, including three pedestrians killed by buses in less than a week (seven fatalities in nine months), have tragically emphasized just how poorly Metro has performed in this regard. The other priority for Metro: confronting its budget problems.

To Mr. Catoe’s credit, he understands that a quick fix for this problem doesn’t exist. Safety must be inculcated throughout the entire organization, and bad habits that go uncorrected will catch up, and with fatal results that were, sadly, avoidable. In Los Angeles, where he was deputy chief executive of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Mr. Catoe turned to DuPont, which ranks as the safest company in the world. The project was such a success, Mr. Catoe recounted to editors and reporters at The Washington Times on Tuesday, that on one occasion when he visited a bus maintenance facility, an employee stopped him from entering and made him wait, safely, in his car until the required vest could be tracked down for him. Metro is currently talking with several companies to provide similar review and direction for its system.

The second part of the agenda will be addressing Metro’s perennial financing issue. The projected shortfall for the fiscal 2008 budget is $64.1 million, which is less than originally projected but still more than the $41.7 million from fiscal 2006. Mr. Catoe needs to address both sides of the equation by making Metro more efficient and by increasing its revenue. A thorough review of every position in the Metro organization, as Mr. Catoe has promised, is a good start. Streamlining its operations by trimming functions that it no longer needs and possibly turning to outside contractors will allow Metro to close that budget gap without being forced to cut services, which should be the last resort.

The issue of overtime pay also needs to be addressed. A quick glance through Metro employee’s salaries shows several bus and train operators making up to 60 percent of their base salary in overtime pay. The more overtime dollars that Metro has to shell out, the less efficient its operation. Reducing overtime means filling vacancies, Mr. Catoe said. And for bus drivers, for instance, Mr. Catoe is looking at a plan to stop the practice of hiring drivers only on a part-time basis, so that potential drivers aren’t dissuaded from joining Metro because of the pay cut they would face initially.

The second part of the funding equation involves raising fares — a move that we think Mr. Catoe should pursue concurrent with his plans to increase operating efficiency. Mr. Catoe touted a “more comprehensive plan” that would tie fares to certain factors. Recognizing what a struggle it can be raise fares, instituting a system of automatic, smaller but more frequent, fare adjustments has merit. It would, at least, help Metro cover more of its operating expenses. Welcome home, Mr. Catoe, and good luck.

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