By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 14, 2009
Beverley K. Swaim-Staley wants Washington area commuters to know she has lived their misery.
She, too, has lost hours of her life to a crawling Capital Beltway and has experimented with dozens of routes trying to avoid it. She said she has switched between buses and Metro trains and carpools in search of a better way.
"I'm very familiar with, and absolutely know, the pain of the Washington region," Swaim-Staley said with a laugh about her four-year commute between her home in Anne Arundel County and her former job in Rockville as Montgomery County's budget director, which she held until 2007. "I think I had 50 ways to get to work."
Today, Swaim-Staley's commute takes her to the Maryland Transportation Department headquarters in Anne Arundel. Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) appointed her this month to be the state's transportation secretary, the first woman to hold the post. She joins the growing ranks of nine women who lead state transportation agencies long dominated by male engineers.
Swaim-Staley's career as a budget analyst and the political skills she honed during two stints as the state's deputy transportation secretary are being put to the test. As in many other states, Maryland leaders are searching for new ways to pay for road and transit projects as traditional sources of revenue -- gas taxes and vehicle-titling fees -- dry up along with driving and car-buying because of the recession.
In the past year, Swaim-Staley, 52, has helped cut more than $2 billion in projects from the state's transportation funding plans. In August, Maryland's Board of Public Works approved $159 million in reductions for county road projects.
"The relatively easy things [to cut] have been done," said John D. Porcari, Swaim-Staley's predecessor, who joined the Obama administration in May as deputy U.S. transportation secretary. "There aren't many options left. As with her colleagues around the nation, she's looking at very difficult choices."
As deputy secretary, she also oversaw Maryland's highways, toll facilities and MARC train service as well as daily operations at two airports, the Baltimore Port and the Motor Vehicle Administration.
Swaim-Staley, who has worked at MDOT for a dozen years periodically since 1993, is widely described by former and current colleagues as smart, thorough and straightforward. She has few vocal critics. Before O'Malley tapped her as acting secretary to replace Porcari, she had worked mostly behind the scenes and was best known for her budgeting expertise. Swaim-Staley is not well-known beyond the Annapolis State House, the agency's headquarters near Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport or Montgomery's county office building.
"Right now, having someone with a good handle on budgeting is critical, someone who knows where the money is and how to maximize it," said Lon Anderson, director of public and government affairs for AAA Mid-Atlantic.
Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of the environmental group 1000 Friends of Maryland, agreed: "It's a good time to have an insider."
Anderson and other transportation activists said they want to see how Swaim-Staley handles any attempts by O'Malley or state lawmakers to shore up other parts of Maryland's beleaguered budget by tapping into the transportation trust fund.
"For many of us, it will be the first chance to see her tested under fire," Anderson said. "Is the trust fund going to be a cookie jar for everyone else, or will it be protected?"
Swaim-Staley said she feels "honored and certainly pressure" to be the first woman in a position that she considers "daunting." She said she'll have a better idea of any additional cuts by December, when she expects an updated revenue forecast, but she's not optimistic.
"Unfortunately," she said of the vehicle-titling revenue, "it's not coming back yet."
Even so, Swaim-Staley said, she will continue pushing her priorities, particularly planning for more transit to focus growth. That includes trying to secure federal construction money for an east-west Purple Line light rail link between New Carrollton and Bethesda, a Red Line light rail line in Baltimore and better transit in the congested Interstate 270 corridor through upper Montgomery. She also would probably preside over the scheduled opening late next year of the first seven-mile section of the $2.56 billion Intercounty Connector, the first major highway built in the region in a generation.
The Transportation Department has 9,000 employees and a $3.8 billion annual budget. Swaim-Staley, who lives in Davidsonville with her husband, Scott Staley, will make $163,300 annually, state officials said. Her husband works in sales for an Annapolis car dealership.
One of the few times Swaim-Staley has faced public criticism came in 2003, when she withdrew her application for Baltimore County chief administrative officer after some County Council members balked at the proposed $140,000 salary. Some council members said they "feared she would be a micromanager and would alienate department heads and employees" after receiving letters from Transportation Department employees criticizing her management style, according to a Baltimore Sun article.
Then-Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D), who said he thought Swaim-Staley was treated unfairly, recruited her to be his budget director. She returned to the deputy state transportation secretary job in 2007 after Duncan's successor, Isiah Leggett (D), fired her and other Duncan appointees.
Swaim-Staley is "quiet and not demonstrative," Duncan said, but "sticks to her guns," qualities he said will help in her new role.
"Her challenge is going to be to tell people the projects they've been promised aren't going to be delivered," Duncan said. "People get angry at that. She's got the demeanor to do it."