WASHINGTON — It’s been more than a year since Richard Sarles announced he would be retiring as Metro general manager in January of 2015. Now, the agency is finally on the cusp of naming a permanent successor.
NBC 4 broke the news that Metro’s board is extending an offer to Neal Cohen, the chief financial officer and executive vice president at the Dulles-based aerospace firm Orbital ATK. Cohen does not have public transit experience, but he did work for 16 years at Northwest Airlines and US Airways.
“I think it’s great that he has transportation experience in the airline industry, his finance background is going to be very helpful. But, we also want to make sure he can manage the operational side of the business, especially something as technologically complex as Metro,” says Stewart Schwartz, the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth.
Metro has been under financial restrictions imposed by the Federal Transit Administration since last year. That’s when an audit exposed the questionable handling of billions of dollars in federal grants.
In July, Metro Board Chair Mortimer Downey released a letter announcing the field would be opened up for candidates with “financial management experience and those outside government and the transit industry.”
Cohen’s selection meets that criteria with the bonus of some transportation experience.
Emil Frankel is the interim CEO and President of the Eno Center for Transportation and says he’s not commenting specifically on Cohen until the selection is formally announced, but he points out that versatility is important for a general manager.
“I think the most important qualification is the strength of leadership and general management skills,” Frankel says. “WMATA has faced a lot of problems over the last few months and couple of years, and across a range of things: operational, safety, financial.”
Schwartz says setting up a good team is critical, especially for someone who may not have the operational experience in a public transit agency.
“Like any new commanding officer, if he has areas where he’s not as strong, hiring someone who is strong in that particular area would be helpful,” Schwartz says. “Transit operational managers, safety experts and others within his staff, amongst his deputies, would certainly be important.”
The Coalition for Smarter Growth along with ATU Local 689, the Action Committee for Transit and the Greater Washington Board of Trade sent a letter to local leaders earlier this month outlining their wishes for a new general manager.
The letter calls for the jurisdictions to “commit to backing up the new General Manager with the political support, organizational authority, and funding needed to do the job successfully.”
Frankel agrees that the next Metro general manager needs to have political backing to be successful.
“The first, and most important, and continuing task for the new general manager, the new CEO, is to build on the consensus that hopefully is represented by his or her selection for the job,” Frankel says. “To bring the jurisdictions together in shaping a program of renewal and restoration and good operations for WMATA.”
It’s the pattern established by one of the people Frankel cites as a hero for him in the transportation field: former New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority chair Richard Ravitch. Ravitch is often credited for turning around New York’s subway and bus system in the 1980’s, thanks in large part to his political ability.
And Schwartz says that ability to get everyone on the same page is one of the crucial needs if a new general manager hopes to turn Metro around.
“At the outset be a good listener,” Schwartz says. “There are a lot of stakeholders with Metro. Metro is a part of all of us in the Washington, D.C. region, and so I certainly hope that he will listen to all of those customers, unions, management, elected officials, other government staff and businesses.”