I’ve interviewed many transit officials, but before I met the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s (WMATA) general manager, John Catoe, I had never met anyone who got into transit “by accident.”
Growing up the Washington, D.C., area, Catoe sent out dozens of resumes as he set out to find his place in the world and actually accidentally happened upon his path in transit.
“I sent one to a blind ad in Orange County for a personnel job, it was a training position,” Catoe says. “And I got contacted for an interview and found out it was the [Orange County Transit District (OCTD)]. And that was my first job in public transportation, working in human resources.”
Catoe would spend nearly two decades with OCTD working in a number of positions, including human resources, marketing, finance and eventually he moved into operations. His operations experience would lead him to Santa Monica’s Big Blue Bus, where he would spend five and a half years before leaving to join L.A. Metro as its deputy chief operating officer.
As for how he came back to D.C. after all those years, it was a chance for Catoe to come back to his hometown and as he says, “it’s an opportunity for me to make a difference in a place that I grew up.”
East vs. West
Having seen my share of transit agencies all over the United States and Canada, I can say while there are similarities, there is definitely a difference in attitude when it comes to comparing East Coast versus West Coast agencies. And who better to speak on this than John Catoe, who has been both the deputy COO in L.A. and now the general manager in Washington, D.C.
Catoe says a major difference is in the ridership, with a focus on removing people from using the single-occupant vehicle, and the income level is middle class or lower, with a large percentage of people using the system as a lifeline.
“Generally you find it’s the service workers who are going to work in hotels and restaurants and others and some students as well as seniors.
“Also in L.A. and the West Coast, there’s a primarily bus focus. The majority of people who use transit in Los Angeles ride buses because they are still putting together the network of a light rail system connected to a very small subway system,” Catoe says.
He points out that change to the system is kind of locked in place due to economics and facing that uphill battle of getting people out of their cars. In comparison the Washington metropolitan area is much more focused, due to the geography, on the central downtown area of Washington, D.C., and the transit system is also focused on that.
“Without Metro this region would be gridlock,” Catoe says. “You cannot get that many vehicles back on the street and move them in this region. And it’s not an issue of its going to take longer. It’s an issue of absolute gridlock. The region would not be able to function.”
He also points to the economics of the region, “Not that any rider is any better than any other rider, but from an economic standpoint, Washington’s ridership is very well educated with income levels exceeding middle class, upper middle class or even higher income. And now what does that mean?
That means that you are going to have a ridership base that is far more involved in the operation of your system.”
Catoe says another major difference is the connectivity to and the investment in the transit system from the ridership. In L.A. there are a large number of people who can’t or don’t make the effort to contact the agency to complain about delays. On the flip side, Catoe and WMATA have to deal with a ridership that not only contacts them, but their congressman, their mayor and the major news media should a delay occur.
“There’s this huge customer involvement in what happens on a daily basis. Now there’s good to that, too. Because of the communications, some customers that again communicate to the elected officials the importance of Metro to this region, and how critical it is to getting people to work,” Catoe says.
“Forty percent of our ridership base is federal employees. And we carry more than 50 percent of federal employees to work everyday. That’s huge. In addition we carry elected officials, congresspersons, senators.”
It is of note that for a system that has been around for four decades in our nation’s capital, WMATA has no dedicated funding source. While it recovers more than 80 percent of the operating costs of its trains from the farebox and more than 30 percent from the fareboxes on its buses, each year it has to present its case to Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia to get funding for the next year. Catoe says this was one of the biggest differences between his current agency and L.A. and a concern going forward as the agency ages and is in need of critical capital improvements.
“From a financial standpoint, L.A. has a sales tax. Has two half-cent sales taxes. So it has 1 cent on every dollar spent in the county that comes to the agency in support of its broad transportation and its transit programs.
“Again here, every year I and others have to go to Richmond and to Annapolis and to the District office building asking for funding. And the jurisdictions have been consistent in providing that funding, but it’s not guaranteed. Each year you have to ask for it, versus having a dedicated funding source. Now we’re working with Congress and others to try to get some type of dedicated funding, but that’s not going to happen over night, that’s going to take time.
“So from a funding situation that’s a radical difference. In L.A. it’s more certain. Here it requires we take an action every year and there is no guarantee to that,” Catoe says.
As part of securing the funding needed to just operate the system, Catoe put in place fare increases, the first in several years, which went into effect the Sunday before I interviewed him. To say he was nervous was an understatement.
“Monday morning I expected a lot of people to come up to me and say very unpleasant things, but they didn’t,” Catoe says.
“Instead at lunch time a couple of people I saw on the street said, we’re not going to get mad at you about the fare increase. So it’s accepted. I think the majority of our people who use the system understand the costs of what we do are going up. There is always a certain percentage who say, you know I’m not going to pay more unless this happens or that happens, I’m going to drive in. But you find out that they really don’t. It’s like the person who is going to move to Canada if a certain president is elected, and they never leave the country. It’s the same type of situation.”
Fare increases always beg the question, are they needed? With this one in place, Catoe said he did not believe there would be a large ridership loss, but I asked was it a necessity.
“It’s a necessity for next year’s budget,” Catoe says, “And that was the hard sell.
“Historically here, when we did fare increases it occurred with the budget. And I was articulating, no I wanted an 18-month fare increase, because by doing that the increase would be smaller. It was already the largest increase in Metro’s history, but if we waited until July when it was absolutely necessary for the budget, the amount of the increase had to be greater — one-third larger.”
Catoe says the board also discussed instituting future increases automatically, instead of waiting until they were needed. New increases now would use the cost of living every two years as a metric to determine if there should be automatic increases.
Catoe reiterated his desire for comprehensive dedicated funding for the region — capital and operating funding. Without that, he says, fare increases will continue to go into effect and eventually may reach a point where people would need to make other choices.
But what if WMATA had its funding reduced or cut entirely from one of its three sources — Maryland, Virginia or the District of Columbia?
“It would be a huge impact,” Catoe says. “Maryland provides almost a third of the revenues to the system. And it would cause massive shutdowns. A third of the service would have to be eliminated.
“It’s going to be a tough dilemma because the only direction we could go is fares because the ridership would not change. Actually from Maryland it would be … it’s one of those if you cut the subsidy and we cut our services it’s going to impact the economics base of the state of Maryland. But particularly in those suburbs surrounding the district, and these are very highly dense populations.”
Catoe says he doesn’t see that scenario playing out, but could see future increases be called into question, “I could see that the increases that we will request over the coming years, there will be discussion, we can’t afford that increase. I do not … I have no sense whatsoever of any threats to cut what’s being given today. The question will be the increase in subsidies as we move forward. I think there is some danger that we will not get increases which will result in some type of reduction because if costs are going up and dollars remain the same something has to give.”
John Catoe came into a position of some scrutiny with the unenviable situation of the agency being plagued with a series of fatalities. There were two fatalities of employees on the rail system before Catoe came to the system, but he was in the area at the time. Then there was a fatality on the bus system shortly after Catoe arrived last January, and a month later two pedestrians were killed in an accident with one of the buses and another person was killed just a week later.
“Obviously we’ve got a problem,” Catoe admits. “With each case we went into an investigation, but that wasn’t enough.
“I directed several actions. One, that every employee would be retrained in safety, [including] every driver on an annual basis, [and] I communicated with every employee verbally and by written form about what was happening, about where the responsibility lied.”
The media looked at these accidents and began asking if WMATA or its drivers were unsafe. Catoe said in talking with employees he heard them say it wasn’t fair that the actions of two operators would taint the image of the rest of the agency.
“I pushed the ball back and said, you’re the only ones who can control this. I can’t control it. Media relations can’t control it. Only your performance can control that. And I placed the burden back on them,” Catoe says.
Catoe also spoke with the board and brought in DuPont to work with the agency on a five-year safety program. Catoe admits that when he came to WMATA he saw things he deemed unsafe and decided that things had to change, but even after a year working on the situation, they’ve only scratched the surface.
“We’ve done the assessments. We’ve set up safety committees. We have training programs. Again this is a cultural shift in an organization. We did this in L.A. and it was 18 months before we even saw any impacts whatsoever. And then from that point on it was rapid changes. And that is what we intend to do here. Our goal is to have a 50 percent reduction in five-years of work related accidents and that is across the board,” Catoe says.
He admits that safety is a process, not a magic bullet that a new general manager could bring with him. He points at his supervisors as the ones with the real responsibility for the system’s safety and they would be held accountable for events that happen under their watch.
Comparing his system’s safety to that in L.A., he says that it’s a much tougher environment on the East Coast, “Increased number of pedestrians. Lots of circles. Lots of one-way streets. An older roadway that’s not as wide.
“So like San Francisco, certain segments are so narrow that I don’t know how the bus gets down the street. We have some of those. The bus has to wait for traffic coming in the other direction on a large number of roadways in this area.”
When Catoe came in hand-in-hand with the concerns about safety came complaints about system service. Catoe, who rides the service every day, said he witnessed first hand the lack of service that his people could be presenting riders.
“There was an occurrence a couple weeks ago. I observed a gentleman who was talking, trying his SmarTrip card, [and he] was charged too much money,” says Catoe.
“And he talked to a supervisor and she gave him the paperwork and said you have to fill this out and send it in. And I said, no, no, no. And I walked up to him and I said go on and fill it out, give it to me and I will take it in. And I did, and we got the person’s monies back.
“The point is that it’s every employee’s responsibility to provide customer service. And if I can do it as general manager, it’s my expectation that every other executive and every other manager in this agency doesn’t just go out there and look. It’s not always that terrible, but take an action. Everyday take some small action to improve the service to our customers.”
Catoe says this is another cultural change for the agency. One that Catoe feels needs to continue, “I am unhappy the way it is going. I think we need to do a far better job. And it’s my expectations that our management team do that. This is not an area that I will accept ‘well it ain’t my job,’ it is their job.
“No matter what they do. Whether they are in IT, finance, planning, I expect them to be out in the system doing things to improve the quality of service.
“We’re going through different programs with our station managers and our supervisors. But again this is one of the [ones where] you have to walk the talk. You have to demonstrate that. And we need to look at the whole aspect of who do we hire for these jobs. Are we hiring people from a customer service perspective. And that’s an industry problem, it’s not just here in Washington.”
One of the ways that Catoe feels that he can assist in that cultural shift is in how the agency rewards its employees for outstanding performance. He admits that recognition programs were one of the things they cut back on when they were faced with financial issues — something he intends to change and soon, saying that he feels this is something that they can’t afford not to do.
“We had an awards program in the latter part of last year. It’s an annual program. I was up there shaking hands and talking to people and several things I observed, Catoe says.
“One, there was an award called the General Manager’s Award. I didn’t know how the people got the award. I didn’t have anything to do with them getting it and I wasn’t involved in the selection process. So I knew that had to change.
“[Two,] there was some very good people receiving awards, but I thought it was disproportionately administrative not operating.
“And then the real ‘killer’ to me was it came time for the Million Mile awards, or discussion, recognition, and there were about 30 drivers there.
“And when the time came I was looking for the plaques or pins or whatever. They were told to all stand up at one time and then they sat down. There was no name calling. There was no pin. There was no trophy. There was no even go to Hell to you. There was nothing except for thank you. And I determined then we were going to do more.”
Catoe and his staff are planning a banquet to recognize the Million Mile drivers, because as he explains, “…someone who can drive a million miles, or two or three, and not have an accident, that’s an incredible employee. That’s an incredibly safe person. And to me it was we’re talking about safety and we’re talking about not having accidents and then the people who don’t have it we don’t recognize them?
“I wanted to make up for that event last year. I thought I owed it to the operators to do something special.”
Safety and service are pillars of an agency’s image, but as I asked Catoe, how much of an agency’s image is made up by its employees and how much is made up by its riders? Professional sports teams are often marked by the actions of their fans, is an agency’s?
“The majority of course is by those who operate it,” Catoe says.
“When I first came here I was embarrassed the first couple of months because all of the rail car washers were down. We didn’t have one that worked because we didn’t really do the necessary maintenance and we didn’t meet the EPA standards.
“So all of our cars were dirty on the outside. And that’s our responsibility to make that a priority to fix it.
“Well, that’s a priority now, and even though the cars still don’t look the way I want them to look, they are clean on the outside. At least we wash them now. That we control from a quality standpoint.”
Catoe says one of the things he hears most from riders is about ‘employee bunching.’ We’ve all seen it (and probably complained about it at one time or another), a group of employees standing together talking with each other rather than helping people.
“So I have personally gone out and talked to groups. I know you’re talking to each other, I’m sure you’re working, but from a public perspective, I am telling them from our customers how they see them when they are in groups. And that’s something we control.”
Catoe believes that WMATA riders are very courteous. They let people exit the trains before people go in and are very good about doing that.
He said that daily riders are also very conscientious of seniors and people carrying luggage — which, as you would imagine, is quite prevalent on the system.
“I have always seen people getting out of the way or getting up and that’s just the culture of our ridership. And you see a slight difference in the summer because we’ve got a lot of visitors,” Catoe says.
“Now there are some other issues we have, too, about closing doors or whatever. But I think it’s a 90 percent us, but 10 percent our customers, too. I mean we have the ultimate responsibility to make this system safe, reliable and clean. Our customers have the responsibility to keep it clean and safe in the standpoint of letting us know what is going on, but also from a courtesy standpoint.”
I have spoken with agencies that get along with the local media and those that do not. None of them have the added weight of Congress sitting in their backyard like WMATA does.
“You have Congress looking over your shoulder at all times,” Catoe says.
“Something happens here like we had an overtime issue. In every transit system based upon seniority there are operators and mechanics who are going to make $100,000 a year. That happens all over the country. There are stories all over the country about it.
“When it happens here, Congress says it wants a Congressional hearing on overtime at Metro. And it proposed in a certain funding bill [to] restrict the amount of overtime we could pay. Now we pushed and said you can’t do that from a labor standpoint and a contract standpoint, but here the focus is on Capitol Hill, and with that we have an extra responsibility.
“And that’s what I mean that we not only serve this region, we serve the country because what Congress sees is their perception of public transportation all over the country.”
Catoe makes the point that for many elected officials they serve areas that do not have large transit systems. So their sole experience with public transit is the agency in Washington, D.C., and Catoe says they have to demonstrate transit dollars are spent wisely, the system is operated properly and people are using the system so Congress will support it throughout the country.
“I think that’s the secondary responsibility we have,” Catoe says, “We can’t just look at it from the standpoint of the Washington area, but we have to. look at it from the standpoint of the national standpoint.”
As for the media, Catoe says they are right there should anything go wrong with the system to let riders know. “[If] anything happens, any moment, one train breaks down and it is all over the news and how terrible we are as an operation.
“As I tell people we operate more than 1,500 trips a day on trains and if you have the average of 14 breakdowns, breaks or some issues when you have to work on the system, that’s less than 1 percent. That means 99 percent it’s working well.”
According to Catoe, because the train lines are like a one lane highway, when a train breaks down, it blocks everything else behind it — and that’s a problem.
“I wish we had a system like NY with multiple tracks because if you have a problem you can just go around,” Catoe says, “Here if you have a problem you have to single track on the other side. And that creates real problems for us.”
The Washington metropolitan area has arguably one of the most tuned in riderships in the country.
“[Our riders are] very tuned in to the system,” Catoe says.
“Actually you know many times it’s amazing, I would come here and I would go out to a restaurant and listen to people who were talking and they would say they got here by Metro. Or they would say ‘where did you move to, over by the Potomac Metro station.’ Metro has become a place that defines where you live and how you arrive at a location.
“And so I think the two things that the Washington area loves are Redskins and Metro. And they’re disappointed at times with both. And they let you know when they are.”
Catoe has definite plans for the future of WMATA. He is like the successful kid who has come back to his hometown to do what he can there to make it a better place he know it could be. So what’s the most difficult part of the job for this hometown kid? Not taking the agency’s criticism personally.
“Every morning when my phone starts buzzing I know it’s something wrong on the rail system. And when I read that we off-loaded our customers because of a door problem or some other problem, I personally feel … I don’t mentally say, well that happens, I take it very personally. It worries me.
So I push that issue tremendously with our operations people,” Catoe admits.
“And I’m not going to be happy that our customers tell us we’re the No. 1 transit system and that the quality of service we provide is second to none.
“I’ve set [the] objective for our organization [that] in three years I want us to win the APTA award, not because I just want an APTA award to sit on my desk, but I want that to be the challenge for this organization. That quality has improved to that point.”