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Robert Smith out as MTA administrator for second time as Hogan officials consider future

For second time under a Republican governor, Robert Smith is out as MTA administrator.

For the second time under a Republican governor, Robert L. Smith is out of the top job at the Maryland Transit Administration.

Smith's last day at the agency was Friday, he and a Maryland Department of Transportation spokeswoman confirmed.

"It's deja vu, but I'm going to wish the new administration well," Smith said. "The MTA has a lot of great opportunities, a lot of great things going on. I think transit has a great future in Maryland."

Erin Henson, the MDOT spokeswoman, said Smith's departure was "a personnel issue" that she could not discuss.

It comes as part of a broader restructuring of the MTA under Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, whose transportation appointees began increasing their oversight of the MTA even before Smith was pushed out.

The MTA has faced increasing criticism since Hogan took office earlier this year. The agency is a year late in producing a promised plan for improvements to its beleaguered Baltimore bus network, is facing a class-action lawsuit from transit riders with disabilities who use its Mobility service, and hasn't met a state mandate that it provide 35 percent of its operating budget through fare revenue since 2005.

Ridership across all MTA transit modes — including local buses, light rail and MARC train service — was down in 2014, though it has rebounded some this year.

A recent investigation by The Baltimore Sun uncovered political issues, including the run-up to the 2014 elections, played a clear role in the delay of the agency's so-called Bus Network Improvement Project. It also showed skepticism within the Hogan administration for some of the plans being proposed under Smith, including an up-to-18-year rollout schedule for the bus improvements.

Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn said his department would be reviewing the bus project.

Rahn has also been reviewing plans for the Red Line in Baltimore and the Purple Line in the Washington suburbs. Hogan questioned the cost of those projects during his campaign as possibly too expensive for the state.

Henson said Rahn was not available Tuesday to discuss the now-vacant position of MTA administrator.

Smith was appointed to the position for the second time by Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, in 2013. He was first appointed in 2002, late in the administration of Gov. Parris Glendening, also a Democrat, but was let go under the Republican administration of Gov. Robert Ehrlich in 2004.

On Tuesday, Smith said that it "would have been rewarding" to remain at the MTA as big projects like the Red Line were brought to fruition, "but at this point that's behind us."

"I have to accept that the new administration has to go in the direction it wants to go in," he said.

Smith said he is a firm believer in transit's power to make a state and region better, and hopes that it remains "the focus moving forward" under the Hogan administration.

He said the MTA has structural issues it needs to address.

"It's an aging system. The Metro itself is 30 years old. The light rail is at mid-life," he said. "Just being in alignment with the policymakers and the actual operations of the system is something we'll need to continue to focus on."

He declined to speculate on why Hogan and Rahn wanted him to leave, but said he is proud of his record at the agency.

Senior Deputy Administrator Ronald Barnes will assume the responsibilities of MTA chief until the agency appoints a replacement for Smith, Henson said.

"We do expect that to happen in the next few weeks," she said.

Robert Flanagan, the transportation secretary under Ehrlich, declined to discuss that decision but said new administrations often decide to chart a new course at the MTA.

"Historically, managing MTA has been a challenge," said Flanagan, now a state delegate representing parts of Howard County and a member of the House environment and transportation committee. "A new governor and a new secretary of transportation have to be accountable, but in order to be accountable they have to have somebody in that administrator's job that they have confidence in and that they have trust in."

Prior to Smith's departure on Friday, there already were signs that Hogan's administration was flexing its muscles in the agency.

The agency recently appointed Douglas DeLeaver — a former Ehrlich appointee and a member of Hogan's transition team — its first ever "director of farebox recovery" as it works to address the agency's decade of budget shortfalls.

DeLeaver, who will earn a salary of $107,429, has spent 40 years in the policing and transit fields and served stints as chief of the MTA Police and the Natural Resources Police. He said he has already been talking to transit officials in other states and hopes to introduce changes quickly such as more inspectors looking for "fare evaders" on light rail trains.

James F. Ports Jr., the transportation department's new deputy secretary for operations said the agency is considering a slew of other changes too, including increased MARC service for Ravens tailgates and big Orioles games.

"We're trying to be more creative than we have been in the past," Ports said. "We've been attacking this aggressively."

The changes follow ridership declines in 2014, and will be in addition to planned fare increases — likely of 10 cents on MTA bus rides and $1 on MARC train trips — that must go into effect by July 1 under a 2013 law that pegged fares to the Consumer Price Index, which measures inflation.

The MTA, which has failed to meet the required 35 percent threshold for so-called "farebox recovery" since 2005, does not expect the pending increases to solve the problem alone, officials said.

In 2014, fare revenues only covered 26 percent of the operating budget. The last time fares were increased was in 2003.

Between 2009 and 2013, broken fareboxes on buses accounted for between about $1.5 million and $2.9 million in lost revenue, according to the MTA.

Ports said he is in discussions with MTA Police Chief Col. John Gavrilis about boosting ticket inspections on light rail trains and empowering inspectors to issue citations, which at the moment can only be given by MTA police officers.

"We've had some good talks, and you're going to see stepped up enforcement and stepped up citations," Ports said.

Those found on light rail without a ticket by an inspector are put off the train. If they are found by a police officer, they can be issued a $50 civil citation and put off the train. If they fail to pay the citation or show up for court, the citation can be converted into a $150 criminal citation.

Prior to his departure, Smith said the agency conducted 1.9 million inspections last year and issued 2,500 citations, and is on par to hit similar numbers this year.

The numbers represent a 2.2 percent "fare evasion rate," which is well below a national average of between 4 percent and 6 percent, Smith said. Still, fare evaders who board trains and are not caught give paying customers a poor perception of the system, he said.

"There is a perception issue, and it's not just in Baltimore. It's across our industry," he said.

Since taking office in January, Hogan has expressed ire over perceived failings by agencies to operate in a fiscally responsible way under the O'Malley administration, and the MTA has not been spared.

Beyond questioning the proposed bus network improvements over an 18-year period, Rahn has deemed an O'Malley administration goal of doubling 2006 transit ridership by 2020 unrealistic.

krector@baltsun.com

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