Management & Operations

Creating Order From Chaos Is What Inspires L.A.'s New Transit Chief

Posted on June 1, 2001

In the next few months, Roger Snoble, former president and executive director of Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART), will learn the extent of the challenge that he's embraced. Snoble, 56, has been lured back to Southern California (he headed the San Diego Transit Corp. from 1973 to 1993) to become CEO of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). He was given a four-year contract with an annual salary of $295,000. In Dallas, Snoble was paid $218,200 per year. Although outgoing CEO Julian Burke stabilized the MTA since taking over the troubled transit system in 1997, the agency still faces numerous challenges, including a projected funding shortfall, nasty disputes with the Bus Riders Union and all of the difficulties of providing transportation service to fragmented communities covering a 1,433-square-mile area. Snoble says he faced a similar raft of challenges when he started at DART in 1994. During his seven-year tenure in Dallas, he oversaw an ambitious expansion and modernization of the existing system into a highly successful multimodal operation. He hopes to enjoy a similar type of success at the MTA. Before assuming his post in L.A., Snoble spoke with METRO Editor Steve Hirano. Things are very busy at the MTA, with light rail projects, busway programs, lawsuits of various types, projected deficits in operating funds. How long do you think it will take to get up to speed and make your presence felt? It's going to take a long time. I don't think I'm going to be able to come up for air for the first couple of years. There is an awful lot to doÑa lot of people to meet, a lot of different agendas in the political structure. There are a lot of different projects going on. I've already become familiar with a lot that's happening in their plan. Julian Burke has done a great job. I think there are some real good tools that Julian has put in place that will make things a little bit easier than when I first came to DART in 1994. Because the MTA is so big, I think it's going to take some time to really get things in order. It will take some time to establish a presence there. What would you say your approach is? Is it more of a hands-on approach, or are you more of a delegator? My style is totally delegation. I can coach and I can cheerlead, but I'm not going to have the ability [in Los Angeles], as I have not had here [in Dallas], to really get in and tackle specific operating problems on a detailed level. That's going to have to be done by other people. But I can make sure they're on the right track. I can tell them, from my experience, what has worked and what hasn't worked. I'm not going to let them make big mistakes, but I'm going to let them make little mistakes. One of the political issues that's hot in Los Angeles is the ongoing dispute with the Bus Riders Union, which is demanding that more buses be put on the street. Have you dealt with similar controversies in Dallas or San Diego? No, because I've never allowed that to happen. My philosophy is to go after all the riders I can get, no matter where they are. If I've got people out there who want to be customers, they're my best friends. I plan to meet with them very early on and find out what their concerns are and discuss my ideas on how to really make some corrections, because that's certainly a great area to increase ridership. One of the main public transportation concerns in Los Angeles, as in most major cities, is traffic congestion. Are there strategies to reduce congestion that have been successful in Dallas that may be adaptable to Los Angeles? Everything we do is to try to reduce congestion. I think we've got a lot of tools in Dallas. L.A. has got a lot of them there, and they're being used very successfully. It's a big area; they've got a lot more congestion to deal with, so the solutions have to be bigger and better. Basically, it's just getting people to understand that there are other ways to travel, rather than the single-occupancy vehicle. Media scrutiny in Los Angeles of the MTA is fairly intense. Have you had a positive experience in dealing with the media in Dallas? It's pretty intense here, too. This is a big media capital. It's on a smaller scale, but there are a lot of different aspects to it. It's a hungry market; they're always looking for something to make stories with. I just treat the press with respect. If they ask a question, I answer the question. I spend a lot of time meeting with the press and telling them what our story is, the good things and the bad things. Basically it's just a matter of making sure that we can work with them, and that we're treating them fairly and they're treating us fairly. What do you think your greatest challenge is going to be, over the next few months or years? I think it will be just getting to know all the players; getting to know all the people, and having them get to know me; learning their personal approaches and getting the message out of what the agency is all about, the kinds of things we can do, what our mission is, how we can make life better for people, and why they should be investing in us. How would you describe your attitude heading into this new challenge? I'm really excited about it. I'm kind of anxious to get in and really tackle it. At night, every once in a while when I'm trying to go to sleep, the reality sets in and I get scared. So, it is good and bad. I think if I'm not scared, I don't think I can do a good job. I always do best when I'm scared. One of the things that's scary about Dallas is that I'm not scared a whole lot any more. Los Angeles is scary, and lots of times, that's where I do my best. Somebody the other day asked me what I do, and I told them I make order out of chaos. Once I get order, then I'm not happy anymore. I'm looking at the chaos in Los Angeles and hoping to make some order out of it. Are you going to miss DART? I love DART. DART is an absolutely great agency. It's doing wonderful things. It's proving that a city that's very much connected to its automobiles and its pickup trucks really can learn to live much better by embracing what we have to offer. It's been a great laboratory. It's a hard place to leave. But I have full confidence that the spirit here will keep things moving, because mobility is very important to the political structure here, to the lives of everybody. They will continue on the path. I'm just proud that I've been a part of that. ***************************************** METRO Bio ROGER SNOBLE Age: 56 Education: Master's degree in economic geography, University of Akron; bachelor's degree, University of Akron Career highlights: 1994-2001, president and executive director of Dallas Area Rapid Transit; 1979-93, president and general manager, San Diego Transit Corp. Honors: Transit Manager of the Year, American Public Transportation Association (APTA), 1998; Transit Agency of the Year, APTA, 1996.

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