David Ratajczak

David Ratajczak, an assistant superintendent of transportation for MTA, checks wheels before buses leave the garage yesterday. (Sun photo by Andre F. Chung / June 13, 2002)

Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari said yesterday that he has hired a nationally known "trouble-shooter" to help identify and correct the problems responsible for wheels falling off 18 transit buses since August.

Also yesterday, Porcari removed the acting manager of bus operations for the Maryland Transit Administration and reassigned her to an undefined job in planning and scheduling.

"I'm going to make sure we have the specialized talent we need, whether from outside or within the MTA, to fix this problem," Porcari said, adding that more staff changes could occur soon.

The two decisions came a day after the most recent incident, in which a bus carrying 16 passengers lost its right rear wheels on Wilkens Avenue in Catonsville. No one was injured.

The bus was among more than 400 whose wheels had supposedly been fixed in a repair campaign that began May 9; another 400 are scheduled for the work. As a result of the accident, though, mechanics will reinspect the first 400 buses.

Wednesday's incident was the latest in a string of wheel failures. Ten drivers and 44 passengers have filed injury claims. In some cases, the 200-pound runaway wheels collided with cars, causing several thousand dollars in damage.

Despite a raft of adjustments and improvements, the root of the trouble has evaded an investigation team created last month by Porcari.

More expertise will arrive today when David Healey joins the group of auditors, engineers and independent advisers. A Texas-based consultant, Healey has helped solve transit crises in a number of cities and has led city transportation departments in Austin, Texas, and Houston.

As a consultant several years ago, Healey tackled safety equipment failures in Houston school buses, determining that only a few dozen of them were roadworthy. More recently, he was hired by city officials in Washington to help transform its transit service for disabled children.

"One of the things that should have been obvious early on is that the practices between our four bus divisions are very different," Porcari said. "One of his first assignments will be to set a uniform, consistent quality of maintenance."

In his other staffing decision yesterday, Porcari reassigned Phyllis Love, the MTA's acting manager of bus operations. The 23-year employee previously led training programs for the bus division.

"It's essential that all MTA employees react with a sense of urgency, a unity of purpose, and a realization that safety is our top priority," Porcari said. "I'll continue to make whatever personnel moves are necessary to achieve those objectives."

Love was appointed to the post in February by Virginia L. White, who has been criticized for her handling of the wheel problem as acting MTA administrator - a post she has held since July.

A top transportation official, who asked not to be named, said Love had adopted a "cover-yourself mentality" as the bus wheel problem unfolded.

"You don't lead from behind, especially when an agency has issues this deep," the official said. White, who launched an investigation after the 10th accident, excluded the MTA's safety department from the inquiry and blocked an independent inspection of the buses arranged by that department. She took an indefinite leave of absence last week.

Love will be replaced by Michael Hannan, a 27-year veteran of the MTA who served as division chief for the Northwest bus division until recently, when White transferred him to the safety department.

"This is a guy with an extensive level of experience in all phases of bus operations who was well-respected for his work at Northwest," said Maryland Department of Transportation spokesman Jack Cahalan.

Meanwhile, investigators continued to address potential wheel problems yesterday. They believe that wheel nuts were tightened with too much force and that gaskets between the dual rear wheels are deteriorating.

After Wednesday's incident, Porcari ordered mechanics to test the lug nuts on each bus before sending it back out on the streets. About 550 were checked Wednesday night and yesterday morning, and lug nuts on 48 buses were found to be loose.

That could signify potential problems or, in some instances, could be a typical effect seen during the first 100 miles after a wheel is changed. Most of the 48 buses will remain out of service today for further study.

"We don't know if it is truly indicative of a major problem, but being as cautious as we have been lately, we felt it best not to put them on the street," said John Contestabile, MDOT's director of engineering who is leading the investigation.

The absence of the buses on the streets yesterday resulted in average delays of 10 to 20 minutes, with the northwest part of Baltimore being the most affected.