When people think of the Maryland Transit Administration, fun and excitement aren't exactly the first things that spring to mind.
But the staid old MTA gained a significant asset last week with the appointment of Ralign T. Wells as its administrator.
In ways that previous administrators could not, the former bus operator brings to the table a life story, a charisma and an outgoing nature that previous MTA chiefs have lacked.
The man Wells succeeds, Paul J. Wiedefeld, did an excellent job in the face of some brutal challenges. He made tough calls that were unpopular in the short term - on both the light rail line and MARC - to forge a culture that puts safety first. One needs only to look down the road to Washington - where the Metro system has compiled a dismal safety record - to see the consequences of a failure to drive home such a message.
Wiedefeld has also put MARC in a position for long-term service improvements that won't be fully realized until his successor is firmly in charge. By next year, it is likely that MARC riders will be able to look back and see a turning point after a brutal late summer and early fall - when the system came closer to meltdown than most passengers realize because of equipment problems that far predated Wiedefeld's tenure. The outgoing administrator deserves credit for helping to hold the aging system together - even if it did take a lot of chicken wire and duct tape.
My impression has been that Wiedefeld has greatly improved morale at the agency even in the face of difficult budget choices. There has been little of the staff upheaval and political infighting that characterized the agency in the past.
But the self-effacing, understated Wiedefeld never had the star power to be the public face of the MTA's marketing efforts. Wells does, and the O'Malley administration and Maryland Department of Transportation would be foolish if they didn't take advantage of his gifts.
What gifts? Well, he does have a solid resume, but when I posted a picture of the 42-year-old Wells on my blog along with the news of his appointment, one of the first reader reactions I received read: "Wow . . . and he's hot!"
Wells is also, like many of the MTA's customers, an African-American with deep roots in Baltimore. He has a great story to tell - becoming a bus operator at 21, getting a college education while working part-time, and rising through the ranks to the $183,000-a-year top spot in the agency.
A few years ago, I wrote an article about some of the renovations being made to Baltimore's Metro subway. At the time, Wells was the person in charge of Metro operations, and he became my tour guide. What shone through in our interview was his energy, intelligence and boundless enthusiasm for mass transit. My observation then was that if this guy wanted a career in politics, he'd do very well indeed. But so far, he's shown much more interest in seeing that the buses and trains run on time.
Now that he has the top spot, it remains to be seen whether he has the administrative chops and political savvy needed to run an agency that seems to breed crises the way a swamp spawns mosquitoes. A pleasant face and manner will only take him so far.
But if anyone in Baltimore can sell middle-class folks on the idea that transit is a viable choice, that customer service is a priority and that you can ride a public bus safely and with pride, Wells is the guy to do it.
"He is a good salesman, naturally," said Baltimore transit sage, advocate and all-around guru Ed Cohen. "This is a guy who I think doesn't have any enemies."
The MTA would be crazy if it didn't develop a marketing campaign around Wells. He should be on television and radio as no other MTA administrator has been before. He could be the Frank Perdue of Baltimore transit - as long as the product he's selling isn't a turkey.
Not a bad seat in the house
In response to complaints from some Penn Line passengers about the seats in the double-decker cars that MARC acquired from Virginia, I took a train to Washington to ride in them.
After giving one of the seats a rump test between Union Station and Penn Station, I have to confess it didn't seem so bad to 5-foot-11 me. They're not as comfy as the older MARC car seats, which are great, but they're just not that bad. Certainly they don't approach the discomfort of an airline flight in coach or the light rail.
The new seats are easily preferable to standing, which many more riders would be doing if MARC had put the cars into the shop for an expensive retrofitting.
The agency made the right call.