Here's your road map to Maryland transportation's alphabet soup

The Baltimore Sun

Cheryl Sparks, the chief spokeswoman for the Maryland Transportation Authority, fights the same battle day after day after day. Who could blame her for turning to her favorite columnist for a little help?

Sparks works for the agency that runs Maryland's toll facilities - the toll portion of Interstate 95, the Baltimore Harbor crossings, the Bay Bridge and a couple of other elderly bridges over the Susquehanna and the Potomac.

Alas for her, a big part of Sparks' job description consists of explaining to folks that she doesn't work for the MTA.

That acronym belongs to the Maryland Transit Administration, the agency that runs the Baltimore bus system, the light rail, the Metro subway (yes, Baltimore has one) and the MARC commuter train system.

Lacking clear title to its own initials, the Maryland Transportation Authority has had to content itself with the unwieldy MdTA. This could be the only time you see it in print in The Baltimore Sun because it's a concoction that makes our copy desk break out in hives.

So anyway, Sparks was wondering whether I could help clear up some of the confusion about Maryland's existing - and in some cases nonexisting - transportation agencies.

"Just walking in my neighborhood, neighbors feel inclined to ask me how to get a pothole fixed on [Interstate] 83 - or will ask me about an incident at the airport, or ask me about why the Beltway was shut down on a certain day," Sparks lamented. "We are the Maryland Transportation Authority, but often get referred to as the MTA. The Transportation Authority Police are often called the Maryland Transit Police, and the MTA Police are often called the Maryland Transit Authority Police. Sometimes we even get the Maryland Department of Transportation Police."

It seems only fair to help out. I, along with my colleagues at The Sun, have certainly been contributors to this confusion.

A search of The Sun's electronic library finds 34 references to the Maryland Transit Authority and 20 to the Maryland Transportation Administration (three times under my byline). Neither exists. You'll also find numerous references to the Mass Transit Administration, some occurring as recently as November. That agency changed its name to the Maryland Transit Administration many years ago - though to add to the confusion the MTA still operates light rail cars with the old name.

So in the interest of clearing the air, here goes:

At the pinnacle of the Free State's "getting there" effort is the Maryland Department of Transportation, which now answers to Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari, an appointee of Gov. Martin O'Malley.

The department oversees six entities known to Maryland government wonks as "modal agencies." Besides the aforementioned MTA and the authority whose acronym we shall now forget, they are the State Highway Administration (SHA), the Maryland Aviation Administration (MAA), the Maryland Port Administration (MPA) and the Motor Vehicle Administration (MVA).

(That's a lot of alphabet soup for one sitting.)

The modal agencies are run by administrators who are generally professionals savvy enough to align their philosophies with the governor. Every now and then a governor decides to entrust one of these agencies to a political hack. Doing so tends to come back and bite the governor.

Of those agencies, two get to operate police forces - each with real officers with real badges and guns. The Maryland Transit Administration Police watch over that agency's mass transit facilities. The Maryland Transportation Authority Police have enforcement powers at toll facilities while also serving as the police force for the state's marine terminals and airports. They also patrol stretches of Interstate 95, all of interstates 195 and 395, and Broening Highway.

Now, as far as potholes are concerned, don't give Sparks a hard time over those craters on I-83. They're the responsibility of the State Highway Administration - along with most of the numbered highways in the state. The exceptions: Baltimore, where the city maintains numbered state highways and the Jones Falls Expressway; on Maryland 295 south of Route 175 (Baltimore-Washington Parkway), the National Park Service reigns.

If you bust an axle on the Bay Bridge or other toll facilities, on I-95 anywhere between Caton Avenue and the Delaware state line, or on the approach to the city on I-395, the transportation authority is where you go to raise hell. In the counties, roads without numbers are a local responsibility.

I hope that's cleared things up a bit, but the place Sparks really needs to raise her concerns is in Annapolis. After all, if the Maryland General Assembly weren't creating multiple agencies with the same initials, much of this confusion could be avoided.

Since the transit-providing MTA is such a recognized brand, it would make sense to find a completely new name for the authority. Maybe we could make it the Maryland Entity for Revenue Extraction. Then we can laugh off their charges as MERE tolls.

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