Roger Snoble, the top executive of the Dallas transit agency, Wednesday was named the new head of Los Angeles County's Metropolitan Transportation Authority and given a salary of $295,000 a year.
By all accounts, Snoble, who has run the Dallas Area Rapid Transit since 1994, was the top choice of the MTA governing board from the moment he showed an interest in the job.
The biggest question seemed to be whether the 56-year-old executive could agree with the board on pay. Snoble's new salary will make him the highest paid department head in the county. He will receive a car and housing allowance.
MTA directors said they were more than willing to pay top dollar for the right person to run an agency where a single mistake or miscalculation can cost tens of millions of dollars.
"He brings all the skills needed for this job," said county Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, the MTA board chairwoman who signed the contract with Snoble on Wednesday morning. "We had other excellent candidates, but they did not have the breadth of his experience."
Snoble said he was initially cool to the idea of taking the CEO's job, chiefly because he was so happy in Dallas. But, he said, he gradually warmed to the challenge of running the MTA, which has a $2.7-billion annual budget and 9,000 employees.
"This is an opportunity that comes along once in a lifetime," Snoble said during a telephone interview from his office in Dallas. "Los Angeles County is the biggest one there is. This is an opportunity to play in the World Series."
Snoble has worked in public transit for 36 years. Before taking the top job at DART in 1994, he spent 20 years working his way up the ranks at San Diego Transit. He headed the San Diego transit agency from 1979 to 1993.
In Dallas, Snoble headed a transit agency with just a fraction of the MTA's budget and payroll.
But MTA officials said he will be a nice fit in Los Angeles because the Dallas transit agency is similar in many ways to the MTA, with its bus and rail operations.
Snoble's appointment ends a months-long search for an executive to replace Julian Burke, a corporate turnaround specialist who has been working without a contract since he was brought in to fix the troubled agency in 1997.
Burke was hired on a temporary basis after the MTA board spent many frustrating months trying to find a full-time CEO. Several leading transit officials turned down the job. During the 1990s, the MTA was plagued by soaring deficits, financial miscalculations and other problems that led the agency to curtail an ambitious subway construction program and sign a consent decree to improve bus service for minority riders.
Burke, an attorney in the same law office as Mayor Richard Riordan, worked on turnarounds of the Penn Central Railroad and the Teamsters pension fund, and managed the assets of failed savings and loans for the Resolution Trust Corp.
The outgoing CEO called his time at the MTA "the most rewarding project or assignment I ever had."
"I am going to miss this job a great deal," said the 73-year-old Burke. "It has taken over my life."
County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, also an MTA board member, said the agency that Snoble is taking over bears little resemblance to the one Burke inherited.
Yaroslavsky said Burke's biggest accomplishment was bringing financial stability and sound management practices to the MTA.
During Burke's tenure, the MTA started up a high-tech Rapid Bus service and moved forward with development of a light-rail system for the Eastside. His desire to bring down costs led the MTA into a 32-day bus strike last year.
Snoble will find his plate full when he takes over, which is expected to be sometime in late September or early October.
Among the problems facing the MTA is a bitter legal fight with the Bus Riders Union over the 1996 consent decree, and continuing efforts to deal with a projected deficit in operating funds.
The hiring of the Dallas executive denied Mayor-elect James K. Hahn a role in choosing the next MTA chief, although he will soon become the transit board's single most influential member. When he takes office July 1, Hahn will have a seat on the MTA board and control three other appointments.
During the mayoral campaign, Hahn said he would push the MTA to drop its challenge of a consent decree requiring it to improve bus service, a position that could put him at odds with other board members.
Julie Wong, a spokeswoman for Hahn, said the mayor-elect "was kept appraised" of negotiations with Snoble.
"He will sit down with Mr. Snoble and share his goals on a wide range of issues, including making buses and streets a priority for MTA," Wong said.
Eric Mann of the Bus Riders Union wondered why MTA directors "couldn't wait two weeks" for Hahn to take his seat on the board.
"We worry that this is an effort to tie James Hahn's hands before he even gets on the board," Mann said.
Snoble's annual salary in Dallas was $218,200, so the raise to $295,000 represents a big jump. Other highly paid agency heads in the county include Los Angeles Unified School Supt. Roy Romer, $250,000 plus benefits; Mark Finucane, the outgoing head of the county health department, $241,000, and Sheriff Lee Baca, $214,226.
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* Age: 56
* Residence: Dallas
* Education: Master's degree in economic geography from University of Akron; bachelor's degree, University of Akron.
* Career highlights: January 1994-present, president and executive director, Dallas Area Rapid Transit; 1979-93, president and general manager, San Diego Transit Corp.; past chairman, California Transit Assn.; named transit manager of the year in 1998 by the American Public Transit Assn.
* Family: Married, two grown sons.