Operations center named for former highways director

Columbia resident Kassoff considered a `visionary' by current SHA chief

December 23, 2003|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUNS STAFF

Naming state buildings after politicians isn't uncommon, but Maryland's bureaucrats have far fewer monuments to their efforts. Yesterday, however, former State Highway Administration chief Hal Kassoff of Columbia emerged from the pack.

The state's 8-year-old Statewide Operations Center south of Baltimore-Washington International Airport was renamed for Kassoff in ceremonies held at the Anne Arundel County building.

Kassoff, who served all of his 25 years in the agency under Democratic governors, was fired as SHA administrator in 1996 by then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening. State legislators at the time - Democrats and Republicans - worried that Glendening's move to choose his own administrator could inject politics into sensitive highway construction and traffic management decisions.

The honor accorded Kassoff yesterday came under a Republican, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

"Hal Kassoff was a leader and true innovator of several programs and initiatives that continue today," state transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan, a Republican, said in a statement.

Current SHA administrator Neil J. Pedersen said naming the building for Kassoff had nothing to do with politics.

"During Hurricane Isabel, we were sitting around the conference table about 11 p.m. and I was explaining Hal's role" in creating the building and the modern traffic management theories it represents, said Pedersen by phone after the ceremony. He said that during the conversation in September, someone said: "Boy, with that background and vision, we ought to name it for him." Flanagan liked the idea and it was done, Pedersen said.

The Hal Kassoff Statewide Operations Center is an electronic nerve center where state employees monitor more than 60 closed-circuit cameras, 70 electronic message signs, 55 weather stations and 70 overhead speed detectors, and control traffic signal timing on major state highways seven days a week, 24 hours a day.

It was Kassoff who in 1991 arranged the $7 million in federal funding for the building now bearing his name. He worked 12 years as administrator of the SHA, from 1984 to 1996. He is now a senior vice president with Parsons Brinckerhoff, a Washington-based transportation consulting firm.

"He recognized we had a responsibility to manage traffic rather than just building facilities [roads]. This moved us into a new era," said Pedersen, a 21-year SHA veteran. "He was truly a visionary. This operations center is really a reflection of that vision of his."

Kassoff said he was "humbled and honored" by the naming and accepted the tribute on behalf of all those who worked with him, according to SHA spokeswoman Valerie Burnett Edgar, who attended the ceremony.

State programs to keep traffic moving on increasingly congested highways began in the early 1980s with then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer's "Reach the Beach" program, after Kassoff took over the SHA, agency spokesman David Buck said.

In 1989, the first regional nerve center opened in College Park, followed the next year by another on the Baltimore Beltway at Security Boulevard, Buck said.

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