By By Frederick N. Rasmussen and The Baltimore Sun
Apr 17, 2014 at 12:28 PM
David A. Wagner, former deputy secretary of the Maryland Department of Transportation who later headed the Maryland Port Administration, died April 7 of cancer at his home in Mandeville, La. The longtime Pasadena resident was 71.
"Dave was a good administrator, and he was a detail guy. He was well liked by his employees and those who worked with him," said Helen Delich Bentley, the former congresswoman and chairman of the Federal Maritime Commission.
"As a person, Dave was very down to earth, very sharp and an excellent manager," recalled William K. Hellman, a former state transportation secretary. "Plus, he had a very diverse transportation background in highways, trains, subways and the port."
The son of Raymond Wagner, a restaurateur, and Frances Wood Wagner, a Hochschild-Kohn sales associate, David Allen Wagner was born in Baltimore and raised in Glen Burnie.
After graduating in 1960 from Glen Burnie High School, he earned a bachelor's degree in 1964 in civil engineering from the University of Maryland, College Park.
From 1965 to 1968, he worked in the old State Roads Bureau of Highway Design. He then joined the Interstate Division for Baltimore City, a city-state agency that oversaw the city's highway program, as chief of its environmental section.
Mr. Wagner was a state mass-transit planner for the Baltimore region from 1972 to 1975, when he was appointed head of rail operations for the State Railroad Administration.
He was senior transportation adviser for Mayor William Donald Schaefer for two years and then was appointed deputy administrator in 1979 of the Mass Transit Administration, now the Maryland Transit Administration.
Mr. Wagner was named administrator of the MTA in 1981. During his tenure, the first phase of Baltimore's Metro was completed and linked Charles Center to Reisterstown Road Plaza.
In 1984, he was appointed deputy secretary of the Maryland Department of Transportation.
When he was named head of the Maryland Port Administration in 1986, the port of Baltimore was losing steamship lines and cargo to southern Chesapeake Bay ports, mainly Newport News, Va., and Norfolk, Va.
One of his early achievements was reorganizing the MPA and operating it as a business that could quickly respond to fluctuations in the market.
"When I was department secretary, I asked Dave to make the MPA that was a little too bureaucratic to become more customer-oriented," said Mr. Hellman, who had been friends with Mr. Wagner since junior high school.
"He did a good job, was honest, and always turned the cards over. He could take complex issues and simplify them so we could all understand them," he said. "He was just a good man. He was solid and he made sure that all were treated fairly."
Mr. Wagner also oversaw the $240 million development of the Seagirt Marine Terminal that opened in 1989 and an adjoining $25 million railroad yard and intermodal terminal that opened a year earlier.
Also during Mr. Wagner's tenure, the Toyota Terminal in Fairfield was developed and the first strategic plan for the port of Baltimore was undertaken. He also formulated legislation that led to the establishment of the Port Commission.
"Dave had a natural ability when it came to dealing with people and got done what had to be done," said Thomas C. Watts, who attended college with Mr. Wagner and worked with him at the old State Road Commission.
"Even if a person did not get all of the things that they wanted, they knew they had been treated fairly and honestly by Dave. People always said he was the best boss they ever worked for."
"I remember his clear thinking, his incisiveness, his competence," said David W. Chapin, an official with the Maryland Transportation Authority. "He understood issues, understood what motivated individuals or groups to take certain positions. He often seemed to figure out how to get something done, far before others had."
Other projects undertaken during his administration included the modernization of the Dundalk Marine Terminal and its cruise terminal.
At the time of his 1989 resignation, Mr. Wagner was locked in a bitter dispute with the International Longshoremen's Association and told The Evening Sun that he felt he had lost the backing of then-Governor Schaefer.
"I would like to be remembered as the guy that woke the port up. I think I came at a time that this port was asleep," he told the newspaper. "It needed somebody to ring some bells and make some noise, and I think I did that."
After leaving Baltimore, Mr. Wagner worked as chief operating officer for the port of New Orleans until retiring in 2006.
J. Ron Brinson, who was president and CEO of the board of commissioners of the port of New Orleans, said one of Mr. Wagner's "greatest moments" came after Hurricane Katrina. The hurricane inflicted an estimated $200 million in damage on the port and Mr. Wagner got it back up and running.
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Mr. Wagner had been a season ticket holder for Terps basketball games.
A celebration of Mr. Wagner's life will be held from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday at the Royal Sonesta Harbor Court, 550 Light St., Baltimore.
Mr. Wagner is survived by his wife of 49 years, the former Nancy Patrick; two sons, Eric P. Wagner of Owings Mills and Jeffrey A. Wagner of Atlanta; a brother, Larry Wagner of Pasadena; and two grandchildren.