MTA official resigns amid safety failures

Sun Staff

The embattled deputy administrator of the Maryland Transit Administration resigned yesterday amid continuing criticism that she failed to adequately address safety failures that have caused wheels to fall off buses 18 times since August.

The announcement of Virginia L. White's departure yesterday afternoon made no mention of the bus wheel debacle. A two-sentence e-mail sent to senior MTA managers at 4 p.m. said only that White was leaving to "pursue other interests."

"We want to thank her for her years of service as a state employee, and wish her all the best in the future," wrote Deputy Transportation Secretary Beverly Swaim-Staley.

White resigned yesterday morning during a meeting with William Goddard, chief of staff to state Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari. She did not submit a letter of resignation and had no conversation with Porcari, said department spokesman Jack Cahalan.

Porcari declined to comment last night. White could not be reached for comment.

Acting administrator since July, when Ronald Freeland resigned, White had ambitions to fill the job permanently and was among dozens of applicants for it.

But over the months, wheels fell off buses 10 times before White launched a formal investigation to identify the problem. Even then, she failed to disclose the scope of the problem to Porcari, blocked an independent inspection of buses arranged by the agency's safety department, and challenged the authority of a safety officer who identified a potential wheel maintenance problem in the MTA shop run by White's husband.

Within the agency, several employees said her departure will allow a fresh start as investigators continue working to identify the cause and resolve the wheel problems.

"There was definitely a conflict of interest and we all felt that," said an operations manager, who asked not to be named. "I think everybody probably feels we'll be able to start with a clean slate. It can't do anything but make the MTA stronger."

To date, 54 injury claims have been filed by drivers and passengers who were on buses that lost wheels.

On June 1 - a week after the bus wheel problem became public, and a day after the 17th incident - White went on paid administrative leave saying she wanted the agency's focus to be on correcting the problem. Last week, Porcari named Robert L. Smith, vice president of bus operations for the Chicago Transit Authority, as the new administrator.

Few expected White to return to the agency where she rose through the ranks during 17 years. No one interviewed yesterday was surprised by her resignation, which Cahalan said was voluntary.

"The bus wheel debacle was so poorly handled that the public's confidence in her was totally eroded, unfortunately," said Ralph Moore, a transit advocate with the Citizens Planning and Housing Association. "It was like peeling an onion - the more you peeled the more you saw in terms of concerns and problems."

While White didn't create all of those problems, he added, "some of the things she did certainly worsened them. I don't think she could have come back."

The head of the union representing bus drivers and mechanics agreed.

"Somebody had to take responsibility," said Deoleous A. Bridges, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1300.

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