Management & Operations

John Catoe: Driving D.C. to be the 'Best Ride in the Nation'

Posted on February 26, 2008 by Janna Starcic, Executive Editor

It’s been one year since John Catoe left his position as deputy chief executive officer of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) to take on the general manager duties for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (Metro). He now oversees the second-largest rail transit system and the fifth-largest bus network in the U.S., with more than 10,000 employees, a $2.2 billion budget and a $3.1 billion five-year capital improvement program.

In Catoe’s ambitious quest to overhaul the transit system, he made safety a priority by implementing an organization-wide safety improvement program aimed at changing the culture of the organization, increasing accountability, reducing bus and rail accidents by 50 percent and creating a safer work environment. METRO Magazine Executive Editor Janna Starcic talked with Catoe about his focus on safety, as well as his challenges and plans for the system’s future.

When you were sworn in a year ago you mentioned that having a good safety record was a priority, can you talk about the status of this issue?

When I came here, we had just had employee fatalities in December; it became obvious that safety had to be at the forefront of what we do here. After discussions with the board, I got their agreement to bring DuPont to work with us for five years. In addition, we instituted a new safety training program for all of our operators.

I’ve challenged our employees as individuals to monitor what their coworkers are doing and to operate their vehicles safely. With our ongoing safety program, we’ve made inroads and established a dozen safety committees. But it’s a long-term commitment — we still have a long way to go. Last year was a very tragic year for us and I do not want a repeat of that.

You recently appointed Ronald Keele as safety director, what does he bring to the table that you weren’t getting already?

There was a major shakeup in the safety area. It was more of a bureaucratic process, and, in my observation, we weren’t following up sufficiently on issues. If something would occur, we would document it and notify the proper authorities, but we weren’t really looking at the causes and coming up with solutions to fix it. So, we reassigned and restructured that group.

[Keele] brings his experience from working here before [he moved to the Maryland Transportation Authority (MDTA)]. He was perceived as knowledgeable, responsive, and really caring about our customers and employees. When he went to Maryland, he was recognized as being creative, with outstanding leadership skills and willingness to try new things. During his interview with me, he mentioned that wearing seatbelts was a problem for MDTA drivers in Baltimore. He had the seatbelt color changed to a bright yellow. So now when you drive by, you can tell if they are wearing their seatbelts, which was a very effective [solution].

Again, he knows the system, he’s personally committed to safety and has good leadership skills, and he gets things done.

In your $1.7 billion budget proposal, you include various system improvements that you’d like to see, discuss these.

There is $19 million in the existing budget proposal that I’m going to adjust to pay for the addition of eight-car trains. We have 60 vehicles coming in, all of which will be placed in service in the next budget year. We also want to keep six-car trains in service during off-peak periods and on weekends. Even though collectively the ridership numbers don’t justify it, it was clear from a customer perspective, that we reduced the quality of our service when we went to four-car trains. We also have money in the budget for expansion of bus services, including working to improve running times.

Also, next year for the first time you will probably see a bus rapid transit service here in Washington, D.C. We are going to use 60-foot articulated buses, from the order that Los Angeles [MTA] has for this vehicle, which will start arriving in March. We want to do limited stop services and start defining the different bus services, like we did in Los Angeles, where we had local, limited and express services.

When I lived in D.C. before, the bus route that I took to downtown was a bus-only lane during peak periods. If you went into that lane, you got a ticket. Somehow those lanes disappeared. It’s amazing that we lost those, given the need for moving our vehicles swiftly through traffic. We’re going to have an aggressive program to work with the various jurisdictions to get those lanes back. I’m optimistic that we will.

Let’s talk about the budget shortfall and why you’ve had to raise fares for the first time in four years.

For the first time, I proposed an 18-month increase. Instead of waiting for the budget, I proposed that the increase begin in January to save the extra dollars that we have from January to June, for the FY ‘09 budget. It’s been a long time since the last fare increase, so I knew this one had to be significant. If we waited until mid-year, it would have to be bigger. It was a very painful process, which is normal with a fare increase. We worked with the board, the public and all the jurisdictions, and ultimately had the board come up with a fare policy that would bring in $109 million over those 18 months. The increase went into effect in the beginning of January.

In the past, the agency has had high overtime costs, were you able to hire enough operators to mitigate this problem?

We’ve mitigated it to a point. Last year we had 600 and some odd vacancies, now we are just down to 400. We’ve made major inroads, but we still have a long way to go. What’s happening is we are replacing people, but people are leaving because we began services about 32 years ago, and a lot of people we hired from that period are starting to retire. So we are working to recruit people.

Looking back on your experience in L.A., can you compare the issues you experience in D.C., what are the similarities and differences?

First the job itself is different. Being the general manager versus the deputy CEO, I now appreciate the CEO’s job; I see it from a better [perspective]. That in itself is a radical change. You are not recommending direction for the agency or supporting the CEO — you are doing it. And there’s no one else beyond you to pass the buck to. That in itself is a change. It’s a difficult, but enjoyable transition.

The other change is the demographics in Los Angeles. L.A. MTA has done a great job in trying to attract the drivers of single-occupant vehicle; however, statistically the highest percentage of their bus ridership is transit dependent. Here in Washington, you don’t even have to talk about getting [riders] out of single-occupant vehicles. We have different [customer] demographics. It doesn’t mean that one customer is better than the other. I bring that up because our customers are far more vocal, they write letters, e-mails, and make phone calls to Congress, local elected officials, to me and to the newspapers. In some ways it’s good because it keeps you on your toes. In other ways, it can become a little overwhelming. Again, it’s very good, because it reflects the importance of public transportation here.

There’s a saying here that there’s two things the Washington area residents want, the Redskins and Metro — they are very critical about both of them.

Another difference is, in Los Angeles, you go out to dinner, clubs or events, and people talk about traffic. Here, people talk about where they live in relation to a Metro station. That’s how people commute to their errands and social events. [It’s not uncommon] to see people here at night wearing tuxedos riding our system. Strangely, that’s normal.

Property values here are based upon the [proximity] to a Metro station. When property goes up for sale, the for-sale sign will say it’s near a Metro station. That adds a tremendous value to property here. [Residents] here have become ‘urban’ smart. They’ve figured out that it’s a lot cheaper to ride Metro. A large number of them have their transit cards subsidized, and when they need a car, they use a Zip car or a Flex car.

[The issue we have in D.C.] will be capacity. It’s a nice issue to have, but the challenge is, how do we keep up with the [demand for] capacity and the growth of this system? That’s going to take a lot of money and some creative approaches on the bus side, because you can’t fix the rail side quick enough.

Operationally, Metro is a larger system. Los Angeles has a 14-mile system, while we have a 106-mile system. That is a huge difference in terms of operation, as well as the number of options [available to] our customers.

From a press perspective, the visibility of our agency is totally different, [from my experience in L.A.]. [Here in Washington, D.C., the press] personalizes the stories, for example, the fare increase is ‘Catoe’s fare increase’.

Transit here is [similar] to what it is in Europe. When I took a transit tour in Europe a few years ago, I was impressed at how important the [position] of minister of transportation was in Paris. While in Washington, it’s not quite at the level of Europe, the role of the head of transit in this region is a critical one. Everyone knows who you are and they let you know it. They will tell you what they think.

Do you ride your system?

I ride the system probably 95 percent of the time for work commutes and I use it on the weekends. Around the holidays, I used it 85 percent of the time.

Looking back at your first year on the job, what would you say was your greatest challenge?

The greatest challenge really is a combination [of things], all relating to our system: The first [challenge] was safety, but I believe we have overcome it.

The second issue is our employees and the focus of the organization. The system was both a construction and operating organization. I had to dismantle the construction segment and keep employees working together and focusing on providing services. That was a challenge.

Anytime you start laying people off and eliminate a part of the organization that’s been in place since it began, that has a tremendous impact on everyone. Keeping the employees focused on their jobs, making sure they are supporting the operation, making the mental shift to an operating-focused employee was a challenge.

What do you find most rewarding about your position?

When I walk into one of our stations, and I watch the tens of thousands of people who are moving around our system in a very short period of time. Watching the buses dropping people off gives me great reward, because we’re making an impact. We are moving people in the nation’s capital to their jobs, schools and recreational activities.

If this system was not here, we would have absolute gridlock. There is no way this region could absorb the capacity, the number of cars going through the street — it would not work. It feels good to know that you have [made a positive] impact on this region, from a mobility aspect and an environmental aspect.

It was nice to find out that we have some very committed people who work here that want us to be the best. That’s the challenge that I’ve given the agency — that we will be the best ride in the nation.

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