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The quiet driver of the MTA

Roger Snoble, soon expected to depart, has led the L.A. County agency to expanded ridership and service.

December 22, 2008|Steve Hymon

Affable, mellow and mustachioed, Roger Snoble has mostly flown below the radar for the last seven years as chief executive of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, one of the nation's largest mass transit operators.

Snoble, 63, announced last week his intent to retire after a successor is chosen, most likely in the next few months. That, in effect, creates a vacancy atop an agency that provides more than 1.5 million transit rides each weekday, has an annual $3.4-billion budget and is in full expansion mode.

Snoble said the passage last month of a half-cent sales tax increase to pay for an array of new transit and road projects represented a good time to transition to a new chief. Among those projects is a multibillion-dollar extension of the subway to the Westside. Agency officials say it could break ground as early as 2013.

"Measure R really sets the agenda for the next 30 years where the agency is going to go," Snoble said.

In transit circles, Snoble is often viewed as someone who helped restore the MTA's finances after a disastrous run in the 1990s when the agency poured billions into building the region's first subway and saw its finances fall apart. Corporate turnaround specialist Julian Burke was hired to fix the agency in 1997, and when he left in 2001, the MTA turned to Snoble, who was running Dallas' transit agency and was at the time a 32-year veteran of the mass transit industry.

Snoble today is paid $322,000 annually, in addition to $22,000 in annual housing and car allowances, according to the MTA. His one-year contract expires in September.

There have been no serious scandals or major transit accidents on his watch. Ridership grew, Rapid bus service greatly expanded, and the Gold Line light rail and Orange Line busway opened. The $898-million Eastside light rail is nearly finished, a little bit ahead of schedule and on budget.

And, after a botched effort, the MTA reapplied to the federal government for money to convert carpool lanes on the 10 and 110 freeways into toll lanes. As a result, the MTA won $210 million and the so-called congestion pricing project has been given the go-ahead.

Snoble's decision to leave appears to have been his -- an effort in spring by then- Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) to oust him for not securing enough state money for projects never gained traction. However, there recently have been private grumblings from local politicians that the agency needed a pedal-to-the-metal type of chief executive to implement Measure R.

A telling moment may have come at a news conference last month celebrating the passage of Measure R. Snoble told reporters that the so-called Subway to the Sea could take decades to be built, causing Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa -- its primary proponent -- to quickly step in and insist that it would not take that long.

On a more personal level, it was no secret in MTA circles that Snoble had recently purchased a home in the desert while living in a rented condominium in Pasadena. He also said that he wants to spend more time working on efforts to improve wildlife conservation in eastern Africa, a cause he has been involved in since a trip there in 1990.

Snoble's replacement must be approved by the often quarrelsome 13-member board that oversees the MTA. Members include the five Los Angeles County supervisors, Villaraigosa, three of his appointees and four officials from throughout the county.

Supervisor Mike Antonovich, who vigorously opposed Measure R and subway expansion, said he hopes that the next MTA chief is interested in having a "vision for a regional transportation system."

MTA board member Richard Katz praised Snoble's efforts and said the board must find someone who can get projects built well and fast.

"We need someone who can think outside the box and someone who sees this as a huge opportunity to transform L.A. County and help us implement the vision of Measure R," Katz said. "And someone who can do it in a way that is more creative and cost-effective and gets more bang for the buck than doing business as usual."

The next MTA chief will face other tests, including:

* Avoiding a strike by three unions representing MTA drivers, mechanics and clerks. The current contract expires in June.

* Grappling with a sour state budget that will probably reduce funding for the MTA, which could trigger service cuts and fare hikes.

* Finding a way to avoid paying millions of dollars to renegotiate deals made since the early 1990s in which the MTA sold most of its equipment to investors and leased it back with the troubled financial giant American International Group.

Local transit watchdogs and observers said the big challenge for the new chief would be to hold the line or improve bus service, which carries the majority of MTA passengers, while being careful about which pricey rail projects to pursue.

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