State Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari announced yesterday that the vice president of bus operations for the Chicago Transit Authority will take over as head of the Maryland Transit Administration.

The appointment of Robert L. Smith follows a nine-month national search and comes as state officials continue to grapple with a safety crisis in which 18 MTA buses have lost their rear wheels since August.

"Robert's skills are uniquely valuable in issues like the bus wheel problem, but they're more important for the long term," said Porcari, noting that the state is gearing up a regional rail plan for Baltimore and striving to double transit ridership statewide over the next 20 years.

Porcari said lawmakers had agreed to a substantial pay raise for the post. Smith will earn $172,000 a year - about $60,000 more than his predecessor.

"In the past, we have not been competitive," Porcari said. "The governor made the commitment to get the best transit professional in the country, and we knew salary was critical."

Smith, 45, who met yesterday with Porcari, acknowledged the MTA's "immediate challenges."

"We will deal with those positively and effectively, re-establishing safety as our top priority," he said in a written statement.

He says he then plans to begin tapping the agency's "tremendous potential."

Smith was selected from among dozens of applicants and about a half-dozen finalists. His appointment dashed whatever dwindling hopes Deputy Administrator Virginia L. White might have held out for the job.

White, who stepped in as acting administrator after the departure of Ronald L. Freeland last summer, has come under intense criticism for her belated handling of the bus wheel problem and for interfering with attempts by the agency's safety department to investigate it. This month, she took an indefinite leave of absence from her job, the MTA's second-highest post.

Smith, who will begin work in the next two weeks, brings with him 23 years of experience in transit operations and management.

During his four years in Chicago, he helped manage one of the nation's largest and most complex transit systems, where he was responsible for the city's bus and support operations, including maintenance, engineering and technical services. The system includes a 1,900-bus fleet, with 6,000 employees and a $340 million budget. At the MTA, he will oversee 3,000 workers and be responsible for all modes of transit, including the MARC commuter rail service, light rail, the Baltimore Metro subway and bus operations.

Before Chicago, Smith spent 14 years as a consultant for Ryder/ATE Inc., an Ohio-based company that, among other things, manages transit fleets for numerous cities. He held various senior management positions overseeing transit systems in the Southwestern United States, including a stint as general manager of DART Suburban Services in Dallas.

Smith was general manager of the Jefferson County(Ala.) Transit Authority and the Coastal Rapid Public Transit Authority in Myrtle Beach, S.C., and director of paratransit operations in Winston-Salem and High Point, N.C.

"Whether the systems were large or small, he's been particularly good at measuring service, on-time performance, customer satisfaction and making adjustments and improvements," Porcari said.

Will Scott, a retired Ryder/ATE vice president who hired him in the 1980s, said Smith showed outstanding people skills.

"He has the ability to relate not only to dignitaries, but to the drivers, the maintenance technicians, the operating folks - the people who really get the job done," Scott said. "But I think the main thing he brings to the equation is an understanding of the day-to-day operations and the ability to articulate a vision and be able to execute it.

"Once people work with him, they'll respect him and be motivated."

Smith participates regularly in an informal consortium of transit experts in the United States and Canada, working to identify ways to improve transit service through technology. In other cities, he has helped implement such improvements as smart card technology to speed boarding, and express routes and special lanes to quicken bus travel.

His priorities here will start with the basics: improving safety, boosting ridership, increasing reliability and focusing on service.

"I liked the fact," Smith said, "that this state not only talks about smart growth but shows transit to be a priority in a way that I really appreciate.

"I like their vision. I like where they're going."