WASHINGTON — There seems to be a generally positive reaction to the choice of Neal Cohen as the preferred candidate to become Metro’s next general manager, although WTOP has learned the deal will not be finalized until early next week.
Metro Board Chairman Mortimer Downey went to Philadelphia on Thursday morning to discuss the final details of the contract with Cohen. A conference call was held on Thursday afternoon with board members, but sources say that the formal process will not be completed before Monday.
Cohen has spent more than 20 years in the airline and aerospace industries. He worked in the 1990s and 2000s for Northwest Airlines and US Airways, leading both airlines through Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganizations. He was an executive vice president and chief financial officer for each, and holds the titles at contracting company, Orbital ATK.
“WMATA has made a wise choice to select a change agent as it’s next general manager. With extensive experience in the private sector, I expect Mr. Cohen to shake things up,” says Montgomery County Councilman Roger Berliner, chair of the Committee on Transportation and the Environment on the council.
But local leaders also recognize that the most immediate concerns are about safety and reliability for passengers.
“Whatever else is going on, if people continue to have the sense that money is not invested wisely in a system that cannot perform reliably and safely, then none of this other restructuring matters,” says Dave Snyder, chairman of the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission.
Since Cohen does not have a transit background, there is a general feeling that he will need to have a second-in-command with that on the resume. Whether or not he keeps Robert Troup in the post or hires someone new remains to be seen.
“Leadership is knowing what your strengths are. There are so many skills required of a person at the top of an organization as complicated as Metro. The main thing is that they have a serious set of skills and where they don’t have the skills, they know where to find it and fill in the gaps to make the organization work,” says Jay Fisette of the Arlington County Board.
Cohen will inherit a long list of safety directives when he assumes the job. The National Transportation Safety Board issued findings in the 2009 crash at Ft. Totten that are still incomplete. It will likely issue many new findings when the investigation is complete into the January smoke incident at L’Enfant Plaza.
The Federal Transit Administration, which now has direct oversight powers, issued 91 recommendations in a June audit into the safety and financial culture at Metro. Also, the transit agency is on a restricted drawdown list for federal grants from the FTA because of past misuse of the money.
In December, Cohen will inherit a new budget negotiation cycle in which tough choices will have to be made.
Ridership has dropped over the last five years. Revenues remain relatively flat, while expenses are skyrocketing. But it appears that fare hikes are off the table in 2016. If so, it would mean Cohen having to convince the local jurisdictions to increase subsidies again. Maryland balked at the level of the subsidy increase this year.
Another issue is the contract between the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, representing employees, and Metro management, which expires next summer.
But there is hope that Cohen provides the resume to be able to solve these financial issues.
“There are certainly long-term financial issues. If this person brings confidence to the funding agencies, then this will be a positive decision, assuming he hires people under him that know how to run a world-class transit system,” says Snyder.
“The biggest challenge the new GM will have is restoring the public’s confidence in WMATA. Riders, regulators, all stakeholders have to understand that he will shake things up and it will be a different WMATA going forward,” says Berliner.