‘He was a breath of fresh air’: Slater to depart MDOT in January

Maryland Transportation Secretary Greg Slater speaks with then-Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp after an August meeting of the Board of Public Works. On Thursday, the Hogan administration announced that Slater will step down on Jan. 11. (Courtesy Maryland Matters/Bruce DePuyt)

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Transportation Secretary Greg Slater, one of the most popular members of Larry Hogan’s cabinet — and someone who spent much of his two-year tenure trying to salvage high-profile and deeply troubled projects — will leave his post early next year for a job opportunity in another state.

Slater will serve until Jan. 11. The governor has tapped James F. Ports Jr., the executive director of the Maryland Transportation Authority, to take his place.

Slater spent more than 20 years at MDOT, rising through the ranks to become secretary in December 2019, following the abrupt departure of Hogan’s first transportation secretary, the hard-charging Pete K. Rahn.

As secretary he oversaw a $5.4 billion agency that has more than 10,000 employees, with direct responsibility for the state’s vast highway network, the MARC system, local and regional bus and rail service, Thurgood Marshall BWI Airport and the Port of Baltimore.

Through a spokesperson, Slater declined a request for an interview. And MDOT officials declined to say whether he is leaving voluntarily. He has told associates he has accepted a job in the autonomous vehicle industry in the south — an offer described as too good to pass up. Hogan is term-limited and is set to leave office in 13 months.

Slater’s tenure was dominated by two-profile projects he inherited from Rahn — Hogan’s pledge to bring Virginia-style variably priced toll lanes to the Capital Beltway and I-270 in Montgomery County, and the Purple Line, a transitway linking New Carrollton and Bethesda that went off the rails when the prime subcontractor quit in a dispute over cost overruns.

The “managed lanes” project is deeply unpopular among planners, local leaders and environmentalists in Montgomery County. A losing bidder on the multi-billion dollar project has sued the state, and activists and homeowners are expected to file suit as well after the state and federal government issue their final “Record of Decision.”

Construction of the long-planned Purple Line is two years behind schedule, largely due to the long battle between MDOT and Purple Line Transit Constructors over costs. The consortium successfully sued for the right to walk away with the project less than half built, a move that forced the agency to spend the last year finding and negotiating with a replacement.

Despite the difficulties he took on in 2019, local officials — including those who have fought the state’s toll lanes plan — described Slater as one of the most dedicated and responsive state officials they have ever dealt with.

“He was really smart. He was really creative,” said Montgomery County Executive Marc B. Elrich (D). “He was a breath of fresh air. He believed in what he was doing.”

Elrich said Slater, who he met when he worked in the planning department at the State Highway Administration, understood the benefits of having a transportation network that includes both roads and transit. He called Slater’s departure “really bad.”

MDOT conducts annual budget meetings with local officials from each of the state’s 23 counties and Baltimore, sessions that invariably include requests for assistance with projects large and small. Slater’s comments gave the impression he was familiar with seemingly every road in the state, one official said. Hundreds of local leaders had his cell phone number.

“He was one of those guys that knew the department, knew projects,” said Harford County Executive Barry Glassman (R), a former head of the Maryland Association of Counties. “He just had that ability to retain and know his subject matter.”

Negotiations between Slater’s team and and Montgomery planners soured to the point that he and Planning Board Chairman Casey Anderson discussed hiring professional mediators to bridge the differences. But Anderson credited Slater as having “a real interest in reaching out and staying connected with people.”

“It’s not just that he’s accessible and willing to engage, he’ll often call me up and kick around ideas,” Anderson said. “That’s part of the reason why people like him and trust him.”

Del. Marc A. Korman (D-Montgomery), another critic of the agency’s toll lanes plan, said Slater has always been “tremendous to work with. … He always seemed to be trying to get to ‘yes’ on whatever the issue was.”

Assuming he is confirmed by the state Senate, Ports will take over the agency at a critical time.

The state must finalize its contract with Maryland Transit Solutions, the new contractor for the Purple Line, a project critical to Hogan’s legacy. The Board of Public Works must approve a construction contract on the 495/270 project before the governor leaves office. And the Maryland Port Administration has just embarked on a multi-billion dollar expansion of the Howard Street tunnel in Baltimore in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Transportation, CSX and Amtrak.

Hogan called Ports, a former state delegate, “the right person to continue building on all of our record investments in both roads and transit.”

The governor has chosen William Pines, MDTA’s chief engineer, to succeed Ports as the authority’s executive director.

The MDTA has its own challenges. A federal loan the state was counting on to finish the half-built Nice/Middleton Bridge in Charles County is in jeopardy, and the troubled handoff from one vendor to another has left the state’s E-ZPass system beset with operational problems.

Schulz leaving to focus on campaign

Hogan announced Thursday that Commerce Secretary Kelly M. Schulz would leave the administration on Jan. 11 as well.

Maryland Commerce Secretary and Republican gubernatorial candidate Kelly Schulz at the 2021 J. Millard Tawes Crab and Clam Bake. (Courtesy Maryland Matters/Danielle E. Gaines)

Schulz, a Republican, is stepping down to “focus on her campaign” for governor, a campaign spokesman said.

Schulz resigned as a member of the House of Delegates to join the Hogan administration in 2018, first as secretary of Labor. She became head of Commerce in January 2019, taking over for Michael Gill, who left the office to return to his previous role as chairman of Columbia-based investment banking and corporate advisory firm Evergreen Advisors.

Gill is now leaving Evergreen again to lead the Commerce department again.

“After all the work we did in the first term to turn things around, it has been rewarding to observe the continued progress Maryland has made becoming one of the nation’s most business-friendly states,” Gill said in an administration press release. “When the governor asked me to come back, I jumped at the opportunity to once again lead the talented men and women at Commerce.”

Schulz could not be reached directly on Thursday. In a statement, she said she was “incredibly thankful to have had the opportunity to serve the Hogan administration over these last seven years.”

“I thank Governor Hogan for entrusting me with such great responsibilities and for allowing me to have the privilege to work with so many wonderful people throughout state government,” the statement continued.

Danielle E. Gaines contributed to this report.

This article was written by WTOP’s news partners at Maryland Matters and republished with permission. Sign up for Maryland Matters’ free email subscription today.

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