by GERALD NEILY
The Maryland Department of Transportation has promoted Ralign Wells, the ultimate insider, as the new Administrator of its Maryland Transit Administration. Wells started his MTA career two decades ago as a bus driver and has since steadily risen up inside the ranks to the top job. The current MTA Administrator, Paul Wiedefeld, will return to running BWI-Marshall Airport, one of his former jobs.
Ralign’s predecessors in the job gained much of their experience from outside the system. So, does hiring the insider Ralign bode ill for the agency, signaling some sort of failure of imagination? Perhaps just the opposite will prove true. Over the years, most of those ideas-brought-in-from the-outside seemed to lose something in the translation at the agency. Maybe Wells perspective, from inside the bus, so to speak, is just what they need.
The MTA’s Legacy
Back in the 1970s, the MTA modeled its goal of building a new integrated regional heavy rail system after similar efforts in San Francisco, Washington DC and Atlanta, all of which succeeded while Baltimore’s stalled after building one line. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, Baltimore focused more on emulating smaller surface light rail systems such as those in Portland, Sacramento, Buffalo, San Diego and San Jose, resulting in the central light rail line which has failed to attract its expected ridership or revitalize Howard Street.
In the Glendening years, the MTA largely turned away from new rail transit and attempted a more neighborhood-oriented planning focus, with small “Shuttle Bugs” in Hampden and Mondawmin and others that never got off the drawing board. In the Ehrlich years, transit restructuring meant slashing minor routes and branches that appeared confusing and extraneous, but were regarded by users as transportation lifelines. Instead, MDOT Secretary Bob Flanagan, who took a hands-on approach to the MTA, promoted the “Quick-Bus” concept of streamlining the MTA’s major east-west trunk corridor with fewer stops and faster service. Quick-Bus planning has continued into the O’Malley years.
Now, the MTA’s major project is the proposed $1.7 billion Red Line, which has been designed as a pastiche of heavy rail, light rail and trolley elements, with extensive and expensive new tunneling typical of heavy rail, exclusive street rights-of-way typical of light rail, and vehicles which are the same diminutive size as many trolleys. The resulting Red Line would operate as a sort of bus-line-on-steroids, totally separate and incompatible with any of the existing lines, with a large muscle-bound physical structure supporting its slow, undersized isolated transportation capacity.
Can the Red Line be fashioned as the backbone that finally makes the MTA work as an integrated comprehensive transit system? The MTA’s planners and consultants, armed with their reams of technical studies and computer models, say that it will (although they had to make radical changes to the numbers and cut out stations and the second track under Cooks Lane, after they had already submitted the project for Federal approval.)
The MTA is also looking at impending financial difficulties, along with the rest of the Maryland Department of Transportation, where unpopular hikes in taxes, highway toll rates and transit fares are seen as lurking somewhere on the horizon. The multi-billion dollar InterCounty Connector now under construction could drive MDOT deeper in debt, while the MTA’s own farebox recovery rates are dwindling.
But after the planners have drawn up their plans and crunched their numbers, new boss Ralign Wells will be the one who is charged with making it all actually work. He knows the MTA’s inner workings first-hand better than anyone else who has been at the top. Can he pull it off?