Lighthizer named state secretary of transportation


Outgoing Anne Arundel County Executive O. James Lighthizer was named state transportation secretary by Gov. William Donald Schaefer yesterday and will replace Richard H. Trainor, who is retiring, on Jan. 1.

The appointment was not unexpected, as Mr. Lighthizer had twice talked to Mr. Schaefer about the position and had attended a transportation department briefing, according to a top aide.

A lawyer by trade, Mr. Lighthizer joins the governor's Cabinet after two four-year terms as Anne Arundel executive. He turned down a position with the Baltimore law firm of Piper & Marbury after the governor offered him the transportation post earlier this month, aides said.

Instead of a law practice, the 44-year-old Crofton resident

inherits a salary of $105,215 and a sprawling state agency that by all accounts is entering a critical period. And when Mr. Lighthizer sits down at his desk, he will be greeted by a multitude of challenges.

First, in all likelihood, he will have to win an increase in the gas tax and motor vehicle fees while oil prices soar. Then, he needs to nurse an ailing port back to health. Then, he has to launch a few multimillion-dollar mass transit projects and highways as Washington further slashes transportation aid.

After clearing his desk of those trifles, Mr. Lighthizer will have to .. find the time to decide whether the state should break up the Department of Transportation into three smaller agencies, as the governor is considering. And he'll have to decide whether and where the state should build a proposed $2 billion eastern bypass of the Capital Beltway -- a project he opposed as county executive but said yesterday he will have to reconsider from a statewide perspective.

As Mr. Trainor, 61, retires, several state legislators and transportation professionals say he is leaving behind him an agency that bears some scars -- notably, the port's declining business and cost overruns associated with the Baltimore light-rail project -- but is basically in good shape.

But they suggest that his successor will have to scramble to keep it that way. In fact, some think one man or woman is not big enough for the job.

Mr. Schaefer said two months ago that he was thinking of making two DOT agencies -- the Maryland Port Administration and the Maryland Aviation Administration, which runs Baltimore-Washington International Airport -- separate agencies reporting directly to him.

The governor is not expected to announce a decision on the issue until January. Meanwhile, he is getting a lot of advice.

State Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's, said Friday that he thinks the seven agencies of the department, which together spend $2.1 billion per year, are too big and have roles too diverse for one person to handle all of them.

"There's an old adage that someone who tries to sit on too many chairs at the same time falls on the floor, and I think that's what's happened to Secretary Trainor," he said.

He said the port "continues to be in a state of disarray. There should be some one person accountable for management of this multibillion-dollar enterprise."

But some transportation pros oppose the plan, saying that would cut off the port from the financial safety net of the transportation trust fund.

"Obviously, the trust fund is the biggest obstacle to breaking it up," Mr. Lighthizer said in an interview yesterday afternoon, adding that it will be some time before he's ready to venture an opinion on any reorganization. "But I also think that [the transportation department] has been run pretty well."

After the agency's possible division, the most immediate issue thenew secretary will face is -- everyone agrees -- money, or the lack of it. Rising gasoline prices, falling revenues and limited federal subsidies are now a combined threat to the planning, construction and maintenance of transportation projects.

Mr. Lighthizer said yesterday that he has yet to familiarize himself with financial details, but he conceded that the outlook is somewhat bleak:

"You've really got a number of issues to think about. You're looking at increasing costs, at declining revenues in the traditional field of funding, at angry taxpayers outraged at increases in gasoline prices. I don't think we've had that combination in 30 years."

"The situation is actually worse than anyone predicted," agreed William K. Hellmann, a former transportation secretary now with the engineering firm of Rummel, Klepper and Kahl.

Mr. Hellmann serves as chairman of the governor's 15-member Transportation Revenue Committee, which began meeting last month to consider increasing the state's 18.5-cents-a-gallon gas tax and other vehicle fees.

Since the gas tax doesn't rise with inflation, state officials expect have to look for additional revenue for the state transportation trust fund every five years or so.

Maryland government counts on its 5 percent new car titling tax to provide steadily rising income, since the price of cars rises with inflation. But over the past two years, new car sales have fallen and recently began plummeting, dragging the titling tax revenue down with them. In recent months, predictions of revenue from that source through fiscal 1996 have fallen $149 million.

In all, the department's five-year revenue estimates have fallen $521 million, meaning the state may not be able to build all the road and transit projects it already has planned. At the same time, transportation planners say, they could use an additional $4.1 billion for new roads and mass transit projects needed to keep up with the demand.

The Hellmann commission has just begun its deliberations. But it already has begun looking at proposals that include raising the state gasoline tax between a nickel and 10 cents a gallon, increasing the titling tax from 5 percent to 6 percent and raising registration fees from $27 to $35 -- or some combination of these.

But selling the voters and the General Assembly on higher gas taxes when the federal government is raising its gasoline tax and gasoline prices are at historic levels could prove difficult, legislators say.

Nonetheless, state legislative leaders had only praise for Mr. Lighthizer's appointment.

"He's a proven administrator," said Mr. Miller, the senate president. "He's got a good educational background and he comes from an area of the state where he's very familiar with transportation problems."

"He knows just where the department has to go in the '90s," said Delegate Timothy F. Maloney, D-Prince George's, chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees transportation spending. "If you look at Lighthizer's transportation record in Anne Arundel County, he's had one of the most balanced transportation policies of any county in the state, and I think one of the most successful."

Beyond these issues, Mr. Lighthizer will have to look at a host of more narrowly focused issues, including:

* State Highway Administration: Highway programs, which consume most of the state's transportation revenue, have been particularly hard hit by reduced federal spending. In 1985, the federal government paid for 60 percent of transportation construction projects in Maryland, the state 40 percent. In 1990, the proportions were reversed.

Mr. Schaefer also has warned that new federal environmental rules guarding wetlands could cost the state tens of millions of dollars and make some proposed road projects -- such as a freeway linking Montgomery County and Prince George's County too expensive to build.

Also, the new secretary will have to referee a battle over how far the state should go in transferring money from roads to mass-transit projects, which are increasingly popular.

In that regard, Mr. Lighthizer said yesterday that his administration will emphasize mass transit and fixed-guideway projects, such as the state's light-rail project.

Mr. Lighthizer noted, however, that his opposition to the Capital Beltway's eastern bypass -- a project supported by the governor now may be a thing of the past.

As Anne Arundel executive, he was in sentiment with residents of that county, who feared increased traffic on Route 3 and U.S. 50 if the bypass was built.

"As the Anne Arundel executive, I was opposed to it as a project that was politically unpopular and was seen as a negative to quality of life in the county," he conceded. "But now I've got to represent the entire state."

* Maryland Port Administration: The port still lags behind its East Coast competitors, despite construction of the new state-of-the-art cargo handling facility at Seagirt Marine Terminal, which cost more than $250 million.

Assuming the port is not removed from DOT, the new transportation secretary will be expected to keep the state's promises of labor peace and productivity made during various trade missions.

"I am getting some advice on the issue of the port and in the next weeks I'm going to be getting more information," said Mr. Lighthizer. "But clearly, it's something that has to be addressed very, very soon. We've got to go in some new directions."

* Mass Transit Administration: The state will be under pressure to build the new light-rail lines that Mr. Lighthizer supports, at a cost of billions of dollars and at a time when federal aid is dwindling rapidly.

At the same time, he must help find a way effectively to extend mass transit -- now focused on bringing people to and from downtown Baltimore and Washington -- to the new offices and factories opening up at points scattered through the suburbs. And, Mr. Lighthizer will need to help plan the bus

networks, rail systems and other projects needed to get low-income city residents to higher-paying suburban jobs.

Mr. Lighthizer also will advise the governor on whether to permit Montgomery County's new executive to trade in money earmarked for the Georgetown branch light-rail line for other transportation projects.

"Without being familiar with [the county effort], I can say now that in general I would advise the governor to make light rail the priority," said Mr. Lighthizer yesterday.

"I'm very, very excited," Mr. Lighthizer said. "It's a difficult time in the department's history, but I think the challenge is an opportunity."

" There's a limit to how many roads you can build,particularly in a small state such as Maryland ,"said Mr. Lighthizer ."We've got to rethink our way of transporting ourselves and get away from the car."

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