Metro’s GM Pick: Used to Big Projects and Big Stakes

To fix Metro, its board is looking far outside of public transportation for a person who understands big projects -- and public scrutiny.

A day after News4 broke the news that Neal Cohen, a former executive with aerospace company ATK, was the Metro board's choice for a permanent general manager, industry experts and some riders' groups are expressing their interest.

Cohen's contract has not yet been finalized. But if Cohen takes over Metro, the aerospace exec may find familiar complexities at a major transit system.

"I think the aerospace industry is the most complex industry in our economy," said Sterling Phillips, an aerospace consultant. "Someone who has succeeded as an executive in that business has dealt with a lot of moving parts and a lot of complexity."

In both aerospace and public transit, profit margins are low and customers can be difficult to keep.

Metro has lost riders; the transit system says it's down 40,000 trips per day since its peak, which is hurting its bottom line.

Safety, meanwhile, is paramount and closely watched. "The industry is very focused on safety, both for its workers as well as for the ultimate users," Phillips said.

"There's probably not an aerospace company that isn't superb in their safety record," Phillips said.

Metro's recent safety record has been so poor that oversight of its safety operations has been taken over by the Federal Transit Administration.

In January, a woman died in a smoke-filled train car stuck underground; when FTA took over, it said its top priority was to get rid of a backlog of safety fixes that Metro hadn't yet done.

This isn't the first time that Metro has thought about hiring from outside public transit. And the unconventional hiring has intrigued Metro workers and riders; the WMATA Riders' Union issued a statement Thursday saying it was "cautiously optimistic" about the choice.

And the riders union said it hopes Cohen will become a regular Metro commuter -- if he isn't already -- "so that he experiences and understands the issues that riders face daily."

Metro riders aren't asking for much, just reliable and safe trains that are relatively painless to ride.

"Listen to your customers," said Metro rider Alex Lara, a Metro rider. When its cold, put on the heat; when it's hot, have the air conditioning on and make there be more trains for everyone who wants to get on the train"

Service improvements also would be appreciated. As News4 interviewed riders Thursday about Cohen at the Dunn-Loring station in Virginia, the passengers we talked to struggled to understand Metro's announcements in the station.

"They're always garbled," said Corey Kissinger, a Metro rider. "It's really bad."

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