Some on Metrolink board question leadership of David Solow

A highly unpopular mid-recession fare increase proposal and a host of other Metrolink management challenges are intensifying questions about the future leadership role of David R. Solow, the executive in charge of Southern California’s sprawling commuter rail service, The Times has learned.

At least one high-profile Metrolink board member, Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael Antonovich, says it may be time for a change.

Antonovich believes the struggling, five-county agency “needs almost a Gen. Patton-type or even a Rudy Giuliani-type person who comes in, provides leadership, sees a problem and fixes it,” said Michael Cano, the supervisor’s transportation deputy.

“Supervisor Antonovich is not confident that Mr. Solow can be that type of leader for the future,” Cano added, saying he was directly relaying his boss’ comments.

In interviews, several other board members expressed frustration about what they view as recent management missteps. But they were more guarded and did not suggest Solow should go. A Metrolink board committee is in the midst of conducting Solow’s confidential, year-end evaluation, they noted. That could lead to structural changes or even additions to management, some said.

“At times, I think David’s overwhelmed,” said board member Don Knabe, another Los Angeles County supervisor. “I’m certainly willing to either strengthen David’s position and support, or, if it’s a change in leadership, I’m willing to look at that too.”

Solow, who has led Metrolink through a decade of service expansion, declined an interview request. “He does not feel the L.A. Times is the appropriate venue to discuss issues that board members and others may be raising at this time,” said Metrolink spokeswoman Angela Starr.

An administrator who arrived from New Jersey in 1990 to help create Metrolink, Solow has been under intense pressure since last year’s deadly Chatsworth disaster, when a commuter train collided with a freight train, killing 25 and injuring 135. He has been working since to rebuild public confidence and position the agency at the forefront of transportation safety.

He appeared to weather an initial storm following the tragedy, when his team was criticized for a bungled public communications response and then damaged by revelations of poor oversight of train operations.

In recent months, Metrolink board members have become increasingly assertive and publicly critical of management moves, in part due to a multimillion-dollar budget deficit and a deep ridership slump.

Directors have grilled staff about contracts, including one that carried an 18% profit margin. The agreements often appear to be noncompetitive, single-bidder awards that are not the best deals possible, board members say.

Members also roundly criticized the staff -- and implicitly Solow -- for not fully researching possible service cuts and other alternatives to a management proposal to boost fares 6%. The proposal came just three months after a previous rate increase.

“It’s very frustrating when I have to ask and other board members have to ask, ‘Why didn’t we do this?’ ” said board member Richard Dixon, who is also a Lake Forest City Council member.

Solow does win praise for his contributions to the agency. And Hemet Councilwoman Robin Lowe, a Riverside County board representative, said Solow has keen knowledge about such things as positive train control -- the $200-million safety system Metrolink hopes to install over hundreds of miles of track. Federal officials believe such a system would have prevented the Chatsworth crash.

But Lowe said she also thinks Solow is “on overload.”

“The poor man has had so much to carry without the staff to support him,” she said. Indeed, some board members say the historic philosophy of Metrolink -- contracting all major services and keeping staff relatively thin -- is exacerbating Solow’s challenges in an era of major new demands.

But Antonovich suspects Solow never fully recovered from last year’s crash, the fifth significant collision since 1999 and the worst in modern state history.

“Since then there has been a continued habit of a lack of assertive leadership,” said Cano, Antonovich’s aide.

In the supervisor’s view, there’s an absence of “a take-charge attitude that you need to not only help the agency move forward from the Chatsworth crisis, but to deal with the other crises” now confronting Metrolink, Cano said.