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A Transportation Shift in Maryland

State Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn is expected to name Paul Comfort as the new head of the Maryland Transit Administration on Friday, a day after the resignation of the head of the State Highway Administration.

By Kevin Rector

State Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn is expected to name Paul Comfort as the new head of the Maryland Transit Administration on Friday, a day after the resignation of the head of the State Highway Administration.

The resignation Thursday of SHA Administrator Melinda B. Peters, who said she left to spend more time with her family, was the second departure of an agency head at the Maryland Department of Transportation within a week.

Comfort -- vice president of the Queen Anne's County Board of County Commissioners and a career transportation executive -- would replace Robert L. Smith, who was pushed out as MTA administrator last week, after months of criticism of the MTA's performance from the new Republican administration of Gov. Larry Hogan.

Comfort, 49, will resign from his elected position as a county commissioner to take the job.

Peters, 41, has been SHA administrator for the last 31/2 years, appointed under Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat. Smith also was appointed by O'Malley, in 2013, to his second stint as head of the MTA. He had previously been named to the position by Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat, and removed by Glendening's successor, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican.

Rahn said turnover of top transportation agency officials is not uncommon during gubernatorial transitions. He said the MTA "needed to go in a different direction" but that he "tried to convince" Peters to remain at the SHA.

"I hate to see Melinda go, sincerely I do, but it also provides an opportunity to shape the team" at the SHA under the new administration, he said.

Peters, who has been at the SHA in one capacity or another for 20 years, said her decision to resign was "absolutely not" about the political transition under Hogan or fears that her job was threatened.

Instead, she said, she feels the SHA is in "great hands" at the moment and that this was a good time to leave as administrator.

"As you can imagine, it is a job that requires 24/7 attention to our customers," she said, "and I've reached a point in my career where it's time for me to make my personal life my first priority."

Peters, who managed the construction of the Intercounty Connector, has two sons -- ages 16 and 12 -- with whom she wants to spend more time, she said. She's not looking for a private-sector job yet.

Transportation Department spokeswoman Erin Henson said Doug Simmons, the SHA's deputy administrator, would assume Peters' responsibilities until a replacement is named.

Comfort, who will start at the MTA on May 11 at an annual salary of $196,203, has overseen public transit operations in Queen Anne's County and previously worked as the assistant project manager and director of operations for MV Transportation, which operates paratransit services for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.

The MTA currently faces a class action lawsuit for alleged failings in its paratransit and mobility service.

During Comfort's interview, Rahn said, he expressed "an emphasis on customer service," something the agency needs to improve on -- particularly when it comes to its long-overdue overhaul of its bus network.

The MTA also has struggled to boost ridership in recent years and failed for a decade to meet a state-mandated requirement that it fund 35 percent of its operating budget through fare revenue.

Comfort's job "is not going to be easy," Rahn said -- in part because Rahn said he expects to see improvements quickly.

"His hands are going to be full," Rahn said, "but I think he can do it. Otherwise, he wouldn't be assuming these responsibilities."

Comfort, a former president of the Transportation Association of Maryland, said he is "very excited" to take on the job, which he said is a good fit for his career in "public transit and government management."

Comfort has a bachelor's degree in history from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and a law degree from the University of Maryland School of Law.

He said his focus will be on "safety, efficiency and reliability" at the MTA.

"We need to be a top-tier transit system, and that's what I'm going to work to make it," he said.

(c)2015 The Baltimore Sun

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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