Most new employees are given some time to acclimate, to learn the ropes.
Deborah Linehan will have two days.
On her third day as general manager of west Ventura County's bus service, Linehan is scheduled to make a recommendation that boils down to this: Should SCAT dump Laidlaw Transit after months of complaints from riders?
It will be a fast start for Linehan, 44, who will take over today as administrative leader of South Coast Area Transit, which provides 3.7 million bus rides a year. The agency, which receives funding from four cities and the county, has endured months of criticism from some city officials over spiraling costs and inadequate service for seniors.
Representatives from the transit agency's five-member board concede that Linehan's job won't be easy.
"She will have a lot of challenges," said Tom Mericle, Ventura's transportation engineer. "In many ways she is walking into an environment where people involved in the service see it as not working very well."
Linehan will be only the second person to head the transit service, which for nearly three decades has operated under retiring manager Peter Drake. Linehan, who will be paid $100,000, will oversee a $10.6-million budget and 110 workers.
With 43 full-size buses and about a dozen minibuses, the agency carries riders on fixed-route and Dial-A-Ride services in Oxnard, Ventura, Port Hueneme, Ojai and the county's unincorporated areas.
But in the past year, Oxnard and Ventura have expressed dissatisfaction with the transit agency's management because of complaints about late buses, lengthy periods on hold when calling for a bus and a policy that gives disabled riders priority over seniors for minibus rides. The cities also balked at rising costs with no apparent additional service.
The two cities planned a $40,000 audit of the transit agency's budget, but decided to put it on hold in hopes that Linehan can sort through the complicated accounting process.
Ginger Gherardi, executive director of the Ventura County Transportation Commission, knows Linehan from a trade organization. She is confident in Linehan's ability to do the job.
"From what I already know, she doesn't have her feet locked into the way things have been," Gherardi said. "She has a more holistic view of transit, because she's worked in both Vermont and Phoenix, which are very different. Hopefully, she'll look at having different size vehicles in different areas."
Linehan said from what she has seen, the problems are similar to those faced by other agencies: limited funds, increasing costs and cities that want accountability.
She will also have to make a recommendation on the future of Laidlaw Transit, the bus operator that has been criticized on several fronts.
Port Hueneme City Councilwoman Toni Young, who is also chairwoman of the South Coast Area Transit board, said one of her top priorities is to reduce the number of complaints, which she said reached as many as 20 a day under the current contractor.
"I was trying to figure out how we can carry [the disabled], seniors and [seniors attending free county meals] on the same buses . . . and I hope Deborah will get here and figure it out for me."
Linehan tried a couple of other careers before becoming a transportation planner. After receiving a bachelor's degree in journalism from Arizona State University, she worked for a year at a newspaper and then took a job in marketing for the American Red Cross. While there, she ran a Dial-A-Ride service for seniors who needed a ride to medical appointments.
In 1982, she joined the Phoenix Metropolitan Planning Organization and in 14 years worked her way up to deputy executive director.
For the past four years, Linehan has worked as general manager of the Chittenden County Transportation Authority in Vermont. She counts among her accomplishments building a $2.6-million maintenance facility without cost to the member agencies, replacing an aging fleet and passing a bond initiative to raise money for transportation.
If she had to do something else, Linehan said, she would go back to newspapers. "I love what I do, but sometimes I realize that what I like most about my job is the writing," she said.
Her biggest weakness? She is a constant worrier.
"I'm always trying to identify the next pitfall," Linehan said. "Will the money be there? What will people think if we do X?"
Linehan said she has ambitious goals for her work in Ventura County, more than just delving into the accounting process to ferret out inefficiencies.
"One of the challenges in many transit systems is that the service primarily takes transit-dependent people that don't have other choices," she said. "That is important, but we won't alleviate congestion and air pollution until we get people out of cars. And that means we have to offer convenience that goes beyond infrequent service on some routes, some days of the week."