The man chosen to head the Sacramento Regional Transit district may be, at the moment, the agency’s biggest critic.
Henry Li, whose hiring as general manager was announced Thursday, said the bus and light-rail agency needs a major “culture change” immediately to improve its service and regain its financial footing.
“Our financial condition is really at the lowest on the West Coast,” he said. “We are probably among the worst in the ratings agencies’ eyes (financially).”
RT has been in financial difficulty for nearly a decade, starting with the recent recession. With ridership stagnating and costs rising, the agency has run out of budget reserves and is relying on a high-interest line of credit from a bank to pay its bills, Li said.
Li predicted, however,that if the agency moves quickly – and if voters approve a countywide road and transit sales tax measure in November – RT could be on solid financial footing this time next year.
Li, 52, who will take over the top job July 1, is already at work. He joined RT three months ago as assistant general manager of administration, and decided to apply for the general manager position after current head Mike Wiley announced his retirement. Li was one of 17 applicants initially interviewed by an RT panel that included members of the business community.
Li, who worked in transit in China and more recently held transit agency financial roles in Atlanta, San Francisco, Virginia and Jacksonville, Fla., said he took the Sacramento job to live in a more ethnically diverse community and to help RT with its financial challenges.
His role here will be as an agent of change, expanding and accelerating reforms his predecessor Wiley has begun.
Regional Transit board Chairman Jay Schenirer, a Sacramento city councilman, called Li knowledgeable and able to get others to work with him. He said Li shares the board’s interest in rethinking how RT does business. Schenirer said the board wants Li to focus on system safety, cleanliness and on-time performance, as well as rethinking the agency’s internal structure, and preparing for the fall opening of the Golden 1 Center.
Schenirer said Li appears to have the energy for the task. “I don’t think he’s gone home since he got here. I think he’s been 24/7. He’s been working very, very hard.”
Transportation consultant Wendy Hoyt, part of a business group that publicly criticized RT last year, lauded the choice of Li. “He is a real game changer,” Hoyt said. “Super bright, entrepreneurial, motivates his team well. Added bonus, he has already hit the ground running.”
Some of RT’s first steps under Li could be controversial.
The agency already has announced fare increases starting in July, and has been planning to cut bus and rail service by 7 percent in January to save the agency from insolvency. Li said this week that those service cuts will have to go deeper.
At the same time, Schenirer said RT is close to signing a sponsorship deal that would allow it to offer free rides to the Golden 1 Center arena for people who have arena event tickets. The sponsoring company or companies would pay for the cost of adding extra service to the arena during event days, a cost that would be problematic for RT to shoulder, given its lack of resources.
RT officials declined to name the company, but earlier said they would ask the Sacramento Kings to help share the financial burden of added service. Kings officials declined comment.
The moves have drawn fairness questions from advocates for poorer riders. Li defended those moves, saying the agency’s goal is to balance the needs of people who rely on buses as their main transportation and those of the “choice” riders the agency is seeking to attract.
Li said his main goals are to restructure the agency so that RT departments work together, set up performance goals so that managers and workers are held accountable, speed up decision-making, improve relationships with the community and other transit agencies and local governments, and make cleanliness and safety “a core value.”
That starts with filling 13 light-rail cleaning positions, he said. Those positions are part of the planned July budget.
Li speaks deliberately, but his words in an interview this week were blunt. “We owe our board an apology for not acting quickly enough,” he said.
The agency already is planning to hire an estimated 25 transit fare checkers. But it’s not enough to just hire fare checkers and train cleaning crews, Li said. The agency needs to set standards for the quality of their work. “Performance management is something we have to step up.”
“Our staff want to perform,” he said. “The key challenge is to align the positive energy to some key common goals, and (have) everybody work together, support each other and work hard to support those goals.”