Melinda Peters, who has overseen construction of the $2.6 billion Intercounty Connector in suburban Washington, was named Thursday to head the State Highway Administration — an agency under scrutiny after a highly critical legislative audit.
The appointment by Gov. Martin O'Malley makes Peters, 38, the first woman to head the agency, which has an annual budget of about $1 billion. The announcement was made as the SHA is completing the ICC, which links Interstates 270 and 95.
The new highway is scheduled to open for traffic Tuesday morning. Completion of the section between Georgia Avenue and I-95 means the project is more than 90 percent complete, leaving only some feeder roads, landscaping and a final extension to U.S. 1 to finish.
Peters will succeed Neil J. Pedersen, who left the post in June just before the critical audit was issued. Deputy Secretary Darrell Mobley has been serving as acting administrator.
The audit criticized the agency's contract-award practices and adherence to procurement law, and raised questions about the agency's sometimes cozy relationships with contractors and former SHA employees who have gone to work for them.
Maryland Transportation Secretary Beverley K. Swaim-Staley said Peters' husband is employed by P. Flanigan & Sons Inc., a prominent highway contractor. Swaim-Staley said the agency would make sure there is no conflict of interest in decision-making.
"The administrator isn't supposed to and doesn't get involved in any procurements on a regular basis," Swaim-Staley said.
The transportation secretary said the completion of a critical phase of the Intercounty Connector project made it a perfect time for Peters to hand off her ICC duties. She said Peters has received lucrative offers from around the country after having managed the project. "I've been very worried for the past year on how we'll be able to keep her," Swaim-Staley said.
Peters said ensuring the agency's integrity would be her top priority.
"I have a very strong desire for public service," said Peters, who grew up in Lanham and lives in northwest Baltimore County with her husband and two children. "My father worked in public service for more than 30 years."
Peters' promotion vaults her over three long-serving deputy administrators and comes at a time when the agency's management is undergoing change. Several high-ranking SHA executives have left in the aftermath of July's audit. One of the agency's longest-serving managers, Thomas Hicks, director of the Office of Traffic and Safety, has put in for retirement next year.
Swaim-Staley said Mobley had begun revamping the agency's leadership and that Peters would have leeway to continue the process.
"There will be opportunities for her to form her own team," the secretary said.
Swaim-Staley said she's confident Peters is ready for the position. "Clearly, she's on the young side," the secretary said. "But there [are] probably few people at this point in her career who have built a project of this magnitude."
Peters has been the project director on the ICC since it went into its design phase about six years ago.
The highway, which won federal approval during the administration of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. after almost a half-century of wrangling over whether it should be built, was continued under O'Malley after he took office in 2007.
ICC construction has been complicated. According to the Maryland Department of Transportation, it has involved more than 5,000 people and more than $370 million in spending to mitigate the project's impact on the environment.
Throughout the construction, Peters has been the public face of the project, handling public relations as well as overseeing the performance of the contractors. Swaim-Staley said she was impressed with Peters' "leadership skills, her communications skills, her organizational skills and her team-building skills."
Peters said she was committed to running the agency in an "environmentally sensitive" manner. "Our environmental stewardship ethic is an important priority," she said.
Swaim-Staley said Peters would make the transition from the ICC to agency head in mid-December, after taking a vacation following the highway's opening.