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June 2007

Rail News: People

Four months into the job, WMATA GM Catoe is putting his weight behind forging a fiscally sound, safe-and-sound agency

At first glance, John Catoe Jr. looks rather intimidating. His six-foot, six-inch frame gives him a looming presence as he saunters through his executive office at the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s (WMATA) District of Columbia headquarters. But as the agency’s new general manager settles into a conference table chair, he wears a warm smile, and is friendly and approachable.

The impression suits Catoe’s description of himself — nice, but tough when he needs to be. He makes it a point to let all

John Catoe
“This job is
visible, and it
brings with it
responsibility and
exposure I wasn’t
aware of.”
his employees — from top executives to train conductors to bus drivers to custodians — know how important they are to the organization.

But Catoe also expects them to be the best at what they do and relies on them to be proactive and make tough decisions.

And since joining the agency on Jan. 25, Catoe’s held himself to the same standard, implementing new safety initiatives and budget reduction measures within his first few months on the job.

When the D.C. native officially took the reins, the thought, “What the heck am I doing here?” crossed his mind once or twice, he says — and not just because the frigid East Coast winter was a far cry from balmy California, where he’d spent the past 28 years, most recently as deputy chief executive officer for the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority. During Catoe’s first week, he had to deal with a bus fire and subway tunnel fire.

“Let’s just say it was an overwhelming experience,” says Catoe.

And an enlightening one, too. WMATA’s January fires were just the latest in a string of accidents and incidents, including two employee fatalities in December and a bus fatality in early January.

“There was public dissatisfaction, board dissatisfaction and media dissatisfaction with WMATA, which was a surprise to me because it’s regarded as the premier system in the country,” says Catoe.

On the spot
And when he joined the agency, Catoe was thrust not only into the problems, but the D.C. spotlight, as well — a huge change from L.A., where he says the transit chief falls somewhere behind “celebrities, the governor, the mayor, the police chief, council members and dog catchers.”

“Now you come to Washington, D.C., where every day there’s something in the news about [WMATA],” Catoe says. “This job is extremely visible, and it brings with it responsibility and exposure I wasn’t aware of.”

But he’s tried to adjust quickly. And while being under the microscope presents huge challenges, it also provides opportunities to rise to them, Catoe says.

Top on his priority list: refocusing on safety. The authority plans to institute a program to retrain all transit operators. And last month, WMATA awarded a five-year contract to DuPont Safety Resources, which will help change the agency’s safety culture, increase accountability and reduce lost-time injury days.

Catoe also honed in on finalizing the fiscal-year 2008 budget, which included a $116 million budget deficit.

The agency previously had proposed implementing a fare increase, but Catoe believed that, with WMATA’s poor public perception, it wasn’t the time to ask passengers to pay more.

Instead, he opted to cut 220 positions (excluding security personnel and operators) during the next year to save about $28 million annually. The cuts include several vacant positions and some construction office personnel.

“WMATA was formed as a construction agency to build the subway, so over the years, the construction element of the organization was the one that controlled expenditures, capital dollars and policy decisions,” says Catoe. “Well, we’re no longer building extensions and we needed to restructure to focus on what we do.”

The agency also will use $40 million from a decades-old lawsuit that recently was settled, and $12 million in deferred revenue from tickets that have been purchased over the years but never used to further reduce the deficit.

“But there are no more rabbits to pull out of the hat,” says Catoe.

Tough times ahead
The next fiscal budget will be equally difficult to deal with, but Catoe has a few ideas in mind to control expenses and raise revenue. He aims to expand advertising throughout the system and propose a new fare policy (“There will be fare increases in the future,” he says). Catoe also plans to reduce overtime and other costs by getting managers involved in the budget process, then holding them accountable for sticking to the spending plan (“They’re spending dollars and in fairness to them, they have no idea what the budget is,” he says).

All in all, it’ll be a tough year ahead.

“But I’m confident that we can do this. We can meet this challenge and exceed expectations,” says Catoe.

And he’s been pretty clear about his own expectations for the agency and its employees. At the American Public Transportation Association’s Legislative Conference held in March in Washington, D.C., Catoe told participants that in three years, APTA would vote WMATA the No. 1 transit property in North America.

“I’m using that to rally our employees. I’ve told them, ‘That’s a commitment I’ve made and every day, everything you do, I want you do think about how this impacts us being America’s best,’” he says. “That’s what employees said they wanted. Now we’re all going to have to work to get there. Why be No. 2?”

— Angela Cotey


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