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Salaries Soar for MTA's Execs

Pay for the agency's top officials exceeds that of their counterparts in New York and Chicago.

October 22, 2003|Kurt Streeter and Mitchell Landsberg | Times Staff Writers

Over the last two years, while the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has struggled to balance its books and hold down pay for its mechanics and drivers, executive salaries at the agency have soared.

Pay for top MTA officials, led by Chief Executive Roger Snoble at $295,000 a year, is higher than the salaries of their counterparts in comparable or larger transit agencies. These include systems in New York and Chicago that serve many times the number of riders, but pay their top executives less.

Executive pay has not been an issue in the strike by MTA mechanics, although the high salaries do rankle some picketing workers. The strike entered its eighth day Tuesday with no progress reported in negotiations. The Times obtained pay records from the agency last month.

According to the records, Snoble is paid nearly twice as much as the man he replaced in 2001. His deputy chief, John Catoe, makes $242,500 a year, about $80,000 more than his predecessor. A third official, Rick Thorpe, who oversaw the creation of the light rail Gold Line between Los Angeles and Pasadena while working for a separate construction agency, will make $236,000 a year as head of MTA construction, a new position.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday October 25, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 5 inches; 164 words Type of Material: Correction
Transit agencies -- A chart accompanying a California section story on Wednesday about executive pay at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and other transit agencies included several errors. The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority was misidentified as the Santa Clarita Valley Transportation Authority, and due to a rounding error its weekday bus and light rail boardings were reported as 187,000 instead of 188,000. In addition, as of 2001, the last full year of statistics reported to the Federal Transit Administration, the Chicago Transit Authority had 1.6 million weekday boardings, not 1.5 million; AC Transit (in Alameda and Contra Costa counties) had 240,000 weekday boardings, not 187,000; and the Santa Monica Big Blue Bus had 76,000 daily boardings, not 60,000. Also, New York City Transit was misidentified as New York Transit Authority. Finally, the top executive's salary at San Diego Transit was reported as $162,750; more precisely, that salary applies to the general manager of the transit agency's parent organization, San Diego's Metropolitan Transportation Development Board.

Thorpe, who has not yet started, also has been offered generous perks. These include a $17,700 annual housing and car allowance and 52 round-trip airline tickets per year to Utah, where his family lives. The agency and Thorpe are still negotiating and say they may change the details, but not the overall value, of his compensation.

In the two years since Snoble took over as head of the agency, the number of MTA executives earning more than $100,000 a year has nearly doubled.

Source of Concern

The salary increases are a source of concern to some members of the MTA's 13-member board of directors, even though they approved Snoble's salary. At the time, board members said the highly regarded transit chief, brought in from Dallas, was well worth the money. Snoble has authority to set pay for the executives under him.

MTA officials defend the salaries. They say they are trying to run the transit agency more like a business, which means competing with large corporations for the best talent. Taxpayers benefit, they say, because the highly paid officials are doing a better job of running the agency.

"I know how it looks to the public," Snoble said in an interview. "But it looks pretty bad to the public when you have sinkholes happening on Hollywood Boulevard, when you pay out over $50 million to attorneys for bad claims that have happened over a 10-year period."

Mistakes such as those, which occurred under previous MTA administrations, "are frankly hundreds of times more costly than having a person who has got proven credentials in tough environments to be able to pull these things through," he said.

With people such as Thorpe in the agency, Snoble said, "We will have the ability to do much higher quality of work and do it much more efficiently." In a memo to the MTA's board of directors, he predicted that Thorpe "will save Los Angeles taxpayers millions of dollars."

The MTA salaries are generous by comparison with other cities.

New York's transit authority reports 8.6 million boardings per weekday, about six times as many as the MTA in Los Angeles. The New York agency employs 46,000 people, more than four times as many as its L.A. counterpart.

Yet Lawrence Reuter, the head of New York City Transit, earns $225,000 a year, less than any of the MTA's top three officials. The New York authority's parent organization, also called the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, has even lower executive salaries.

The head of the Chicago Transit Authority, which serves slightly more passengers than the MTA in Los Angeles, earns $197,750 a year.

According to the consumer price index, the cost of living in Chicago is slightly less than in Los Angeles, while New York is slightly more expensive.

Snoble's salary is more in line with some of his counterparts in other, smaller California transit agencies, reflecting the high cost of living in the state. The head of the Bay Area Rapid Transit district earns $256,873 a year. The general manager of the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority in San Jose earns about $207,640 a year.

San Diego's Metropolitan Transportation Development Board paid its general manager, Tom Larwin, $162,750 a year. Larwin recently left the position, however, and interim manager Jack Limber said his replacement will undoubtedly be paid more.

Limber added that California transit agencies have a difficult time recruiting from other states without offering a generous compensation package, given the high cost of living here. He said he thought the MTA salaries sounded reasonable.

"Particularly in Los Angeles," he said. "I think Los Angeles has had a very complicated transit system, and a very complicated history

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