Stakeholders Applaud Changing of the Guard at MDOT

Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) and outgoing Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn at an event marking the progress of the Purple Line earlier this year in Hyattsville. Photo by Bruce DePuyt

Political leaders and transportation advocates of virtually every stripe welcomed the news that State Highway Administrator Gregory Slater has been nominated to serve as head of the Department of Transportation.

Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) tapped Slater on Monday, the day that MDOT secretary Pete K. Rahn informed his staff that he intends to step down at the end of the year, news first reported by Maryland Matters.

In making the switch, the governor is turning to a veteran of state government who is heralded for his knowledge of Maryland’s transportation system and its challenges. He is also widely praised for his demeanor.

If confirmed by the state Senate as expected, Slater would replace a leader whose headstrong style rubbed many the wrong way.

Rahn “seemed to have disdain for people who disagreed with him, which is not conducive to coming up with finding common ground on solutions to the transportation challenges that our state faces,” said state Del. Brooke E. Lierman (D-Baltimore City), a leader on mobility issues.

Del. Kirill Reznik (D-Montgomery) called Rahn “incredibly smug and condescending.”

He was “distant and un-engaging,” the lawmaker added, “and in the habit of telling us what’s going to happen, rather than working in a collaborative way.”

Slater, by contrast, draws robust praise even from those — like Montgomery County Executive Marc B. Elrich (D) — who have clashed with the governor.

“Slater is one of the most forward-thinking people they have up there,” Elrich said, referring to MDOT’s Hanover headquarters. “He is really smart. We’ve worked with him on any number of issues of mutual interest.”

Emmet Tydings, vice-chairman of the Suburban Maryland Transportation Alliance, called Slater “a very polished, bright, likable guy — and that always works well.”

Because of the significant time he has spent interacting with local officials and the legislature, there will be “zero” learning curve for the new MDOT chief, Tydings said.

Del. Marc Korman (D-Montgomery) said of the incoming secretary, “He’s accessible, he’s open and he’s solutions-oriented. And he’s responsive.”

Slater, who will become acting secretary on Jan. 10, has worked for MDOT for more than 20 years.

In a statement on Monday, he said, “The work we do at the Maryland Department of Transportation affects the lives and livelihoods of each of our citizens, and we strive every day to operate in a spirit of trust and accountability.”

He is chairman of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials’ Transportation Data Management and Analytics Committee and is a member of several committees on the National Academy of Sciences Transportation Research Board.

Whether Slater can serve as a bridge between a governor intent on holding the line on taxes and those wary of the state’s plan to have private-sector firms build new infrastructure in exchange for the right to charge tolls of varying and unknown amounts for half a century or longer remains to be seen.

What is clear is that he takes the helm at a crucial time.

MDOT has major projects — like the widening of the American Legion Bridge, Interstate 270 and the Capital Beltway — that still require key approval. Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot, like Hogan a member of Board of Public Works, has pressed for a month-long delay on a set of key amendments. His relationship with the governor has become strained.

Franchot issued a statement Monday suggesting that the transition at MDOT justifies a delay in a vote on the project.

While I certainly respect the family considerations that guided [Rahn’s] decision [to resign], the timing of his departure adds a further element of uncertainty to a P3 project that is already in flux and riddled with questions,” Franchot said. “I do, however, have a great deal of personal confidence in Greg Slater, and look forward to working with him on this and many other transportation issues that affect our state’s economy and quality of life.”

Local planners remain miffed that SHA, Slater’s agency, won’t share crucial data and have threatened Public Information Act requests — and there is a looming threat of legal action if the state moves to acquire Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission-owned land using eminent domain.

The Purple Line must be guided to completion.

The Maryland Port Administration, which is setting records for cargo, revenue and jobs, just lost its highly-regarded executive director. James J. White resigned abruptly last week, a move that disappointed backers of the Port of Baltimore.

There is still anger in Baltimore City about the Hogan administration’s cancellation of the Red Line — and a general sense that much more must be done to improve the Baltimore region’s transportation network.

The Washington, D.C., area Metro system (Slater will soon join the WMATA board) is still in the process of regaining commuters’ trust after a long period of unreliability.

The Motor Vehicle Administration is racing to meet a federally mandated requirement that all drivers licenses and ID cards meet strict new security standards by October, 2020.

And political leaders throughout Southern Maryland are mystified and angry that their decades-long push for transit alternatives to crowded corridors like MD 5 remains stuck in neutral.

While some of Rahn’s challenges were self-inflicted, he had the difficult task of being the point man for a governor who pledged — before his 2018 re-election bid — that no homes or businesses would be taken to widen I-270 and I-495, only to go back on that promise after securing a second term. (Ditto his pledge to include a barrier-separated bike and pedestrian lane on the new Nice/Middleton Bridge in Southern Maryland.)

While many are happy to see Rahn depart, others will miss him.

Tydings, who has spent decades advocating for road and transit enhancements, called Rahn “an innovator.”

The Montgomery/Prince George’s P3 “is the largest public-private partnership ever proposed in North America. That’s breakthrough creative,” he said. “That was bold. And it was the only way to move the needle. There is no money otherwise.”

When his stint at MDOT is complete, Rahn, an original member of the Hogan cabinet, is expected to return to New Mexico, where his wife and grown children have lived during his nearly five-year stint at the agency.

The Maryland Department of Transportation has an annual budget of $5.7 billion and 11,000 employees, making it one of the largest in the state.

It could not be determined on Monday who will take Slater’s post as State Highway Administrator.

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