Management & Operations

Putting challenges into perspective

Posted on June 1, 2004 by Steve Hirano, Editor

In the lobby of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s (MTA) 25-story office complex in downtown Los Angeles, a discarded sheet of the local newspaper lies in the corner near the entrance. An MTA employee notices the debris, picks it up, folds it and places it into a nearby trash receptacle.

That the employee is Roger Snoble, chief executive of the MTA, is worth noting. Perhaps fastidious by nature, Snoble nonetheless stopped to pick up litter when no one else bothered. It’s a surprising act for a man who presides over such a vast transportation empire. As CEO, Snoble oversees more than 9,200 employees who provide bus and rail service, as well as bikeway, local road and highway improvements, to one of the country’s largest, most populous counties. The system operates more than 1,900 buses and 73.1 miles of rail service to cover a 1,433-square-mile service area. Moreover, Snoble shoulders some of the heaviest burdens of any transit executive in the industry. He operates in a highly complex political arena that spans well beyond the boundaries of Los Angeles County and requires frequent excursions to Sacramento and Washington, D.C. When Rep. Ernest Istook (R-Okla.) recently held up the full funding grant agreement for the extension of the $898 million Eastside extension, a 6-mile light rail line project, Snoble invited the lawmaker to L.A. for a quick tour of the corridor. Istook apparently was impressed with what he saw and gave his blessing to the appropriation. It was a close call, however. “There are a lot more projects out there than there is money for them,” Snoble says, “and there’s a lot more of them coming down the pipeline.” Frustration is part of the job
In addition, Snoble’s burdened with an onerous federal consent decree that he inherited three years ago when he took the MTA position after a successful tenure as CEO of Dallas Area Rapid Transit. Snoble’s frustration with the decree is evident. “It’s held us back from making any meaningful changes,” he says. The decree has placed enormous strain on the MTA’s operating and capital budget, requiring the agency, among other things, to put hundreds of additional buses on the streets. The agency has argued that it can meet the requisite service levels by improving efficiency instead of adding to the bus fleet. MTA’s legal counsel has lodged numerous appeals against the renderings of the decree — and has lost each one. While Snoble views the consent decree as his toughest challenge, he also is pressured by budget shortfalls created by funding gaps at the state and federal levels. For fiscal year 2005, he says the MTA will eliminate approximately 230 positions, which will require laying off about 190 employees. Meanwhile, the constant drumbeat to improve security is being addressed by adding $10 million to the budget for enhanced security. And it doesn’t help that the MTA struggled through a bitter 35-day strike in late 2003. Not only did the strike aggravate traffic congestion throughout the region, it was also a public relations nightmare for the authority. The local media pounced on the story, offering up daily dispatches on the personal and professional burdens created by the strike. Snoble says the strike has also had a lingering negative impact on ridership. He believes many regular transit users bought cars during the strike and have not returned to the MTA’s buses or trains. Interesting times for all
Snoble’s challenges are not only many but substantial. You wouldn’t expect anything less, however, when you’re responsible for moving 1.4 million people a day. It’s a curse and a blessing. Snoble expresses optimism that the MTA is helping to improve the mobility landscape and the quality of life in Los Angeles. No doubt, this is a difficult time to be a transit manager. But it certainly gives weight and meaning to the Chinese proverb: “May you live in interesting times.”

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