Sacramento’s top transit official scores ‘major league’ salary

New Sacramento transit chief vows fast action

Henry Li says Sacramento RT needs a major overhaul right away to improve service and regain its financial footing.
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Henry Li says Sacramento RT needs a major overhaul right away to improve service and regain its financial footing.

Sacramento Regional Transit general manager Henry Li, who took over the agency helm a year ago and managed it back to solvency, was rewarded for his work Monday night with a significant salary boost.

Li will see his $216,000 base salary bumped up to $248,000 retroactive to last month, then increased again to $281,000 in January. His total compensation package, including benefits, will increase in January from its current $285,000 to $379,000, a 33 percent boost.

Andy Morin, the SacRT board chairman and mayor of Folsom who negotiated the contract, said the agency hired Li last year at a “minor league” salary, below what transit chiefs typically earn, because Li, a transit finance specialist, had never held the top job in a transit agency before.

Since then, Li and his staff have balanced the agency’s budget for the first time in several years and have begun replenishing the agency’s reserves, which had been drawn down to near zero when the agency was in the red. The agency has increased security and fare checking, done a better job of cleaning trains and stations, and improved communications with riders and employee unions.

Eight members of the business community, including Kings minority owner Mark Friedman, downtown developers David Taylor, Ali Youssefi and Michael Heller, and Republic FC soccer executive Warren Smith, signed a letter Monday supporting the raise. That business group previously had been highly critical of the transit agency, calling for culture change, leading to Li’s hiring.

The agency remains at financial risk, however. Ridership has declined in recent years as ride-share services such as Uber and Lyft have arrived on the scene. SacRT still has some of the highest fares among transit agencies in the country. Some riders have complained the agency has focused too much on downtown services related to the new arena, and some have protested the agency’s efforts, along with Sacramento and West Sacramento, to build a $200 million streetcar line.

Transit rider Russell Rawlings, a member of Sacramento Transit Riders Union, said the agency has a lot more work to do to provide adequate service, but told the board Monday he believes Li is the right person to take the agency forward.

Rider Helen O’Connell, also speaking to the board, said the pay increase is deserved, but said if the agency can pay Li that much, it should have the money to reinstate bus routes the agency cut during the recession in 2010, leaving some areas of the county with no service on weekends.

Li, 53, previously worked in transit in China and more recently held transit agency financial roles in Atlanta, San Francisco, Virginia and Jacksonville, Fla. When he took the top SacRT job last year, he bluntly said the agency was in the worst financial shape in the eyes of credit agencies of any West Coast agency and that his goal was to make the agency transparent and accountable, and to put customers first.

In a recent letter to the SacRT board listing his staff’s accomplishments, Li wrote, “While we have not yet reached our potential as a best-in-class transit district, we are miles ahead of where we were.”

Tony Bizjak: 916-321-1059, @TonyBizjak