Lighthizer named state secretary of transportation

December 02, 1990|By Doug Birchand David Simon Peter Jensen of The Sun's metropolitan staff contributed to this article.

Outgoing Anne Arundel County Executive O. James Lighthizer was named state transportation secretary by Gov. William Donald Schaefer yesterday and will replace Richard H. Trainor, who is retiring, on Jan. 1.

The appointment was not unexpected, as Mr. Lighthizer had twice talked to Mr. Schaefer about the position and had attended a transportation department briefing, according to a top aide.

A lawyer by trade, Mr. Lighthizer joins the governor's Cabinet after two four-year terms as Anne Arundel executive. He turned down a position with the Baltimore law firm of Piper & Marbury after the governor offered him the transportation post earlier this month, aides said.

Instead of a law practice, the 44-year-old Crofton resident

inherits a salary of $105,215 and a sprawling state agency that by all accounts is entering a critical period. And when Mr. Lighthizer sits down at his desk, he will be greeted by a multitude of challenges.

First, in all likelihood, he will have to win an increase in the gas tax and motor vehicle fees while oil prices soar. Then, he needs to nurse an ailing port back to health. Then, he has to launch a few multimillion-dollar mass transit projects and highways as Washington further slashes transportation aid.

After clearing his desk of those trifles, Mr. Lighthizer will have to .. find the time to decide whether the state should break up the Department of Transportation into three smaller agencies, as the governor is considering. And he'll have to decide whether and where the state should build a proposed $2 billion eastern bypass of the Capital Beltway -- a project he opposed as county executive but said yesterday he will have to reconsider from a statewide perspective.

As Mr. Trainor, 61, retires, several state legislators and transportation professionals say he is leaving behind him an agency that bears some scars -- notably, the port's declining business and cost overruns associated with the Baltimore light-rail project -- but is basically in good shape.

But they suggest that his successor will have to scramble to keep it that way. In fact, some think one man or woman is not big enough for the job.

Mr. Schaefer said two months ago that he was thinking of making two DOT agencies -- the Maryland Port Administration and the Maryland Aviation Administration, which runs Baltimore-Washington International Airport -- separate agencies reporting directly to him.

The governor is not expected to announce a decision on the issue until January. Meanwhile, he is getting a lot of advice.

State Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's, said Friday that he thinks the seven agencies of the department, which together spend $2.1 billion per year, are too big and have roles too diverse for one person to handle all of them.

"There's an old adage that someone who tries to sit on too many chairs at the same time falls on the floor, and I think that's what's happened to Secretary Trainor," he said.

He said the port "continues to be in a state of disarray. There should be some one person accountable for management of this multibillion-dollar enterprise."

But some transportation pros oppose the plan, saying that would cut off the port from the financial safety net of the transportation trust fund.

"Obviously, the trust fund is the biggest obstacle to breaking it up," Mr. Lighthizer said in an interview yesterday afternoon, adding that it will be some time before he's ready to venture an opinion on any reorganization. "But I also think that [the transportation department] has been run pretty well."

After the agency's possible division, the most immediate issue thenew secretary will face is -- everyone agrees -- money, or the lack of it. Rising gasoline prices, falling revenues and limited federal subsidies are now a combined threat to the planning, construction and maintenance of transportation projects.

Mr. Lighthizer said yesterday that he has yet to familiarize himself with financial details, but he conceded that the outlook is somewhat bleak:

"You've really got a number of issues to think about. You're looking at increasing costs, at declining revenues in the traditional field of funding, at angry taxpayers outraged at increases in gasoline prices. I don't think we've had that combination in 30 years."

"The situation is actually worse than anyone predicted," agreed William K. Hellmann, a former transportation secretary now with the engineering firm of Rummel, Klepper and Kahl.

Mr. Hellmann serves as chairman of the governor's 15-member Transportation Revenue Committee, which began meeting last month to consider increasing the state's 18.5-cents-a-gallon gas tax and other vehicle fees.

Since the gas tax doesn't rise with inflation, state officials expect have to look for additional revenue for the state transportation trust fund every five years or so.

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