After Mildly Bumpy Start, Agro Is Praised at MTA

October 09, 1994|By PETER JENSEN

Take an unabashed perfectionist and put him in charge of a government agency where crises pop up hourly and a good day means things run 85 percent right.

A disastrous pairing? The makings of a nervous breakdown? A doomed relationship?

Maybe not.

After a sometimes turbulent start, John A. Agro Jr. is gaining notice for his management of the Mass Transit Administration.

Mr. Agro's boss, Maryland Transportation Secretary O. James Lighthizer, calls him the department's best manager. State legislators have commended his honesty and forthrightness. Even the head of a transit union is upbeat.

"He's just what the doctor ordered," says Del. Timothy F. Maloney, chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the MTA's budget and a frequent MTA critic. "He's one of the most capable administrators I've seen, and he's pumped new life into the agency."

Since taking over the MTA's top post nearly two years ago, Mr. Agro has weathered numerous crises. Severe ice storms shut down the Central Light Rail Line last winter. MARC fares were raised but crowded trains continued to run late. Rowdy teen-agers and criminal behavior on the light rail system became an issue in the spring.

An infusion of police and a community outreach program have suppressed the light rail crime problem. MARC performance is improving -- up from 85 percent on time to 95 percent last month -- as the system continues to add cars and equipment. The agency is searching for answers to calamitous ice storms.

With Mr. Agro, 48, the focus is usually on accountability and the bottom line. He wants to see every job defined, each goal spelled out, all budgets met to the last decimal point -- and he usually likes to see that in writing.

This is how you make a railroad run on time, he will tell you. And running railroads -- and buses -- on schedule just happens to be the business of the MTA.

Colleagues call him disciplined, intense, committed, driven. Detractors see him as stiff, inflexible, bureaucratic, humorless.

But, friend or foe, most agree that the MTA has the right man for the times. Rising costs and falling ridership have raised questions about the agency's financial future. It only makes sense that an accountant would ride to the rescue.

"The MTA needed what John is bringing to it more than it needed someone with lots of years of experience running a bus company," says Stephen L. Reich, executive secretary of the Maryland Transportation Authority and a longtime colleague. "He's one incredibly committed guy."

Mr. Agro took over an organization that had lost credibility with many legislators. The Central Light Rail Line, one of the centerpiece projects of the Schaefer administration, ran wildly past its original budget.

The Metro extension to Johns Hopkins Hospital overran its budget and its timetable. The 1.5-mile subway tunnel was supposed to have been open by now, but won't be finished until next year.

Ronald J. Hartman, Mr. Agro's predecessor, had managed the agency for eight years in an egalitarian manner. A longtime advocate of public transit, he was passionate about his work, riding a bus or train to the office, writing memos on his own typewriter, rubbing elbows with employees. But when it came to tough decisions, colleagues found him indecisive and too quick to promise results he couldn't guarantee.

"We needed a more disciplined and efficient organization," said Mr. Lighthizer, who tapped Mr. Agro for the $95,000-a-year MTA post in February 1993 after Mr. Hartman resigned. "It has to be perceived as lean and mean. If there is any way opponents can poke holes in it, they will do it."

Twelve-hour days are the norm for the Fallston father of two. Few people at the agency's Lexington Street headquarters work harder.

"My wife [Ingrid] would say I give too much of myself, that I'm too deeply involved, and that I spend far more time away from home than I need to," he says. "But I think our customers deserve excellence, and I'd like us to be the agency that people all through state government wanted to work for."

It was an eventful initiation. Mr. Agro reorganized senior management and then came under fire for discriminating against minorities, a volatile issue for the MTA, where minorities represent two-thirds of the work force.

But after a Legislative Black Caucus hearing in December, its members walked away impressed. More minorities were represented in top management than ever before.

"We're really happy," Del. Clarence "Tiger" Davis, a Baltimore Democrat who chaired the MTA hearing, said recently. "We're never satisfied, but we're happy with the direction John Agro is moving."

He commutes in a state car, a 2-year-old Ford LTD, from his home in Harford County, a parting with his predecessor's daily transit habit that he attributes to a "difference in style."

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