Two weeks before the Maryland Transit Administration plans to launch sweeping changes in Baltimore's bus system, the head of the agency has been replaced.
In a terse statement, state Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn announced Tuesday that Paul Comfort, who was brought in to run the transit agency in April 2015, has left his post. Rahn named Kevin Quinn, who has been the MTA's director of planning and programming, as acting administrator.
Erin Henson, a Maryland Department of Transportation spokeswoman, declined to explain the reason for the abrupt change. She said it was a "personnel matter." Henson confirmed that Jim Knighton, the MTA's chief of staff, has also left the agency.
Henson said the planned launch of the new BaltimoreLink bus system would go ahead as scheduled June 18. She said the department does not expect the transition to be a problem because Quinn had taken the lead in designing and developing the new route system.
State Sen. Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat, said he was "floored" by the timing of the move.
"It gives me great apprehension as to what is coming in the next two weeks," he said. "It does not bode well."
Gov. Larry Hogan unveiled plans for the $135 million BaltimoreLink in 2015, shortly after canceling the $3 billion Red Line light rail project. At the time, the governor billed the plan as a more economical and efficient approach to improving transit in Baltimore than the Red Line, which he dismissed as a boondoggle.
The MTA has been working on implementing the plan for almost two years, holding extensive public meetings to solicit riders' input. In recent months the agency has conducted an educational campaign to prepare riders for the changeover.
The BaltimoreLink plan is a massive route overhaul intended to improve connections and run times. Its centerpiece is the introduction of 12 color-coded, high-frequency bus lines that will link with a network of local lines. Among other things, the system is expected to integrate the bus and traffic signal systems to give the transit vehicles priority at stoplights. The city and the agency are installing dedicated bus lanes on some highly traveled streets to speed rides. Meanwhile, the MTA is eliminating some less-used bus stops and shortening some routes in an effort to improve on-time performance.
Comfort, whose annual salary as administrator was $215,000, is a former Queen Anne's County commissioner. He worked as assistant project manager and operations director at MV Transportation — the contractor that runs the transit service for the disabled offered by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority — before being hired to lead the MTA. Last November he was awarded the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials' President's Award for Public Transportation, earning accolades from Rahn.
His departure from the MTA is not his first time abruptly leaving a senior position. In 2009 Comfort was fired as Charles County administrator by the elected county commissioners. He has also served as county administrator in Queen Anne's.
He had been scheduled to appear before the Greater Baltimore Committee June 21 for the business group's Newsmaker Breakfast.
Brian O'Malley, president of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, said Comfort's departure was surprising and "very odd."
Though he and Comfort had disagreements, O'Malley said he believed the former administrator "sincerely wanted to improve the MTA, improve the performance of the bus system."
"I think he brought a lot of energy and optimism to his role," O'Malley said.
In recent months there have been signs of troubles with BaltimoreLink. Riders in the Falls Road corridor were upset to learn the plan would do away with the No. 60 bus route they depend on to get to work. And the agency has been feuding with the union for workers who operate its buses and light rail and subway trains over workers' schedules, training and other issues.
David McClure, president of Amalgamated Transit Union 1300, said Comfort was not receptive to the union's input. He said that at one point Comfort and Deputy Transportation Secretary James F. Ports Jr. barred him from MTA headquarters before backing down in the face of a lawsuit.
Henson disputed McClure's assertion that he was barred from the building, adding that he was simply required to sign in.
McClure said he's concerned about the way BaltimoreLink is being implemented. He said the union received the agency's new schedules last Thursday, and the agency posted them online Monday.
"We found several errors in those schedules," he said.
Henson said the union could have had the schedules earlier if it had agreed waive a contract provision specifying when operators can choose routes.
Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of the environmental advocacy group 1,000 Friends of Maryland, said she noticed the administration did not send Comfort to General Assembly hearings where she would have expected the MTA chief to appear. She said that was strange because "he was one of the more popular members of that team."
"It was refreshing to have someone who was super-enthusiastic about the MTA but we didn't see that result in the kind of funding that was needed," Schmidt-Perkins said.
Del. Brooke Lierman, a Baltimore Democrat, said she appreciated Comfort's enthusiasm.
"I don't necessarily believe he was given the tools that he needed from MDOT to initiate the necessary upgrades and reforms," she said.
Lierman welcomed Quinn's appointment as acting MTA chief.
"He is a dedicated transit professional," she said. "He has been accessible and knowledgeable about BaltimoreLink and the new bus system since he started on the project."