After 35 years in state and local government, Beverley Swaim-Staley announced in April that she would step down as Maryland's secretary of transportation, effective July 1.
Appointed by Gov. Martin O'Malley in September 2009, Swaim-Staley was the first woman to head MDOT, which has a $3.8 billion budget and more than 9,000 employees. She previously served as deputy transportation secretary, perhaps most memorably in 2001, when she supervised Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
As secretary, she oversaw the completion of the Intercounty Connector, linking Interstate 95 in Prince George's County to Interstate 270 in Montgomery County, and two public-private partnerships: one with Ports America to modernize the Seagirt Marine Terminal at the port of Baltimore, and the other with Areas USA to replace the Chesapeake House and Maryland House travel plazas on Interstate 95.
Happy? Sad? Wistful? Giddy? How are you feeling right now?
All of the above. It's a mix of anxious and excitement and definitely bittersweet. I know it sounds cliche when we talk about MDOT being a family. But it really is. I grew up in state government. … It's just a wonderful, rewarding place to be if you want to be in public service.
So why leave?
You get to a point where you want to do something different and you want to do it while you feel young and energetic and still ready to take on new challenges. That's the bottom line of why now. It would have been easy to just keep doing what I've enjoyed doing until the end of the administration, but in two and a half years I'll be 58, and it gets harder to make a transition. I want to work another 10, 12 years and I was feeling if I wanted to make a change, I had to do it now.
What was your greatest accomplishment at MDOT?
How do you not say 9/11 and reopening the airport after 9/11? We were the pilot for [the Transportation Security Administration] and we were the only airport in the Washington region that was open and doing it fairly successfully. People say, "How could you ever top that?" You don't and you hope that you never have to do it again. Most recently, it would be guiding the department and the authority through the worst economic times that they've ever had. I think we've come out the other side strong — not that the economy has totally recovered. But I certainly think that we've made it through the worst part.
The biggest disappointment?
I worked through this legislative session really hoping that we would achieve a long-term, stable funding source for transportation at either the federal or the state level. That's the one to-do list item that I didn't get to do.
What was the impediment?
I think that we haven't yet done the job we need to do to convince the public of the need in comparison to other needs — education needs and public safety needs. In some ways our successes have hindered us because I think we work hard to keep a good transportation system. ... The port is prospering and is as successful as it's ever been. BWI is as successful as it's ever been. I think in many ways people look at the system and say: "It looks good, it looks like it's successful. Why do they need additional funding?" We really haven't figured out how to explain to the public what we're facing by not addressing now the long-term issues. I don't think people know how critical our needs are.
You've made it look too easy?
I think in comparison to other needs in government we've made it look like we are doing fine. Frankly, there are big, long-term issues in continuing to move goods and people, particularly through this region and the Northeast Corridor. … We continue to grow and yet we still have the same infrastructure we've had for 40 years and in the terms of the rail, we have the same infrastructure in many areas that we've had for 100 years. It's congested now — that people do see. But I think if we continue to grow as we all want to do, those systems are going to fail at some point. It requires long-term planning to address [those] needs before they fail.
So are we already behind the eight ball?
Even if you have the money to replace a tunnel, you don't replace that tunnel next year. Even if you have the money for road improvements, for transit improvements that we need, they don't come on line tomorrow. They require a minimum — if they're an easy project — of three to four years. It took us 10 years on the Woodrow Wilson Bridge before we put a shovel in the ground, and the ICC people were literally working on [the road] for decades before they put a shovel in the ground.
Maryland has gone gung-ho with its public-private partnerships [P3s]. The arrival of the four cranes at Seagirt was just the latest chapter. Where else can P3s work?
What we've done here in Maryland is very prudent and cautious. I think the state will continue to look at this on a project-by-project basis. Each project is so different that you can't use a formula. The next area we need to look at for P3s are our transit projects: our light-rail Red Line in Baltimore, Purple Line in Montgomery County, and the Corridor Cities Transitway.
Turning briefly to the airport: The success at BWI is built upon the success of Southwest Airlines. Does that dependency give you pause?
No, because that tends to be what is happening in the industry. Clearly, it was not the case several years ago. Most airports do have a primary carrier, like Delta in Atlanta. That has become the new norm. I think the keys to the long-term success of BWI are things like the economy and jobs and people's mobility. As long as we continue to be in a strong economic region and have growth and demographics … we will continue to be strong.