“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.