At 21, Ralign Wells learned the skills it takes to navigate a 40-foot bus through the narrow streets of Baltimore. Two decades later, Wells will bring those abilities and more to the job of steering the Maryland Transit Administration, an agency with a $500 million budget and almost 3,000 employees.
State Transportation Secretary Beverley Swaim-Staley announced Wednesday that she had chosen the 42-year-old former bus operator to take over what she called "the toughest job in state government" - Maryland transit administrator. Wells, who has served the past two years as deputy administrator for operations, will succeed Paul J. Wiedefeld, a well-respected executive who is moving over to the top job at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport after almost three years in the post.
Born and raised in Baltimore, Wells brings to the job a thorough knowledge of the city and state and a boundless enthusiasm for all things transit. And as far as anyone at the MTA can determine, he is the first administrator to rise through the ranks from operator.
Wells said he knew from an early age the he wanted to work in transportation.
"When I was a little boy, I was always playing with trains and buses," he said. Wells said he would watch bus operators on the street and "wanted to do the same."
He got his opportunity in 1989, starting as a weekend bus operator. The Woodlawn High School graduate said he drove buses for 8 1/2 years, working part time occasionally to pursue studies at Catonsville Community College on a state employee tuition reimbursement program. He would eventually go on to Morgan State University before earning his bachelor's degree at the University of Baltimore.
"We're going to get our money's worth," Swaim-Staley said.
Wells' first management role at the MTA was as a supervisor in Metro subway operations - a job for which he had to be certified as a train operator as well. He would eventually move up to subway director before moving into his current role: overseeing the operations of the light rail and MARC systems, as well as the bus fleet and the Metro.
In his various positions, Wells said, he has had extensive dealings with the unions that represent the MTA's operators, mechanics, clerical personnel and police officers - including the transit union local of which he was a member.
"I have a great relationship with the union presidents today," he said. "They understand my position. The bottom line is that you be fair."
Wells said he believes his experience behind the wheel of a bus will be an advantage as he takes control of an agency in which maintaining customer service is a constant challenge. He said he wouldn't ask the operators of the MTA's various transit vehicles to do something he wouldn't have expected to do himself.
Driving a bus taught him the importance of professionalism, Wells said.
"The customers respond to that. It just makes them want to use the service more," he said. Wells added that he always liked to see passengers sleeping or taking naps on his buses because it showed they had confidence he would give them a safe ride.
As operations chief, Wells said, he has continued to keep a hand in the bus-driving game, taking new models out for a ride before committing the state to buying them. He said the operators seem to appreciate that.
"It also lets them see I'm still in touch with what they do every day," he said.
As administrator, he said, he's likely to do less hands-on driving but won't rule out occasionally taking a bus out.
Swaim-Staley said that as she considered various candidates to succeed Wiedefeld, Wells' name kept coming up. The secretary said that when she met with senior MTA executives, she heard an outpouring of support for him.
"What each of them indicated to me was that they would recommend Ralign for the position and that if he was selected they would very much like to stay," she said.
Wells, a Randallstown resident and single father of a 6-year-old daughter, said operating a bus was his favorite job at the MTA - at least until his new one.
"I just love it. I love the whole agency. I love what we do," he said.
After reaching the pinnacle of the MTA at a relatively young age, Wells said he hopes to stay a long time in a job that has seen frequent turnover in recent years.
"I have no desire to move on from transit," he said.