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Maryland tolling chief James F. Ports Jr. becomes state transportation secretary

Former transportation secretary Gregory Slater left the state to run a Florida tolling authority

James F. Ports Jr., the former chief of Maryland’s tolling authority, became state transportation secretary Tuesday after his predecessor, Gregory Slater, left for a job in Florida, state officials said.

Ports, 63, a longtime state transportation official, assumes the top job as the Maryland Department of Transportation works to revive the stalled Purple Line’s light-rail construction and pursue private firms to build express toll lanes on the Capital Beltway and Interstate 270.

William Pines, the tolling authority’s chief engineer, has replaced Ports as executive director.

Slater starts Feb. 1 as chief executive of the Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority, which operates toll facilities in the Tampa area, the authority said Monday.

Maryland board approvals final toll rate ranges for Beltway, I-270 express toll lanes

As executive director of the Maryland Transportation Authority since 2019, Ports has overseen the state’s toll facilities and E-ZPass system. He also has served as deputy state transportation secretary, deputy administrator for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and chief executive of Harford County’s transit system, according to MDOT.

From 1991 to 2003, he served as a Republican representative to the state House of Delegates from the Baltimore area, according to his state résumé.

As transportation secretary, Ports also will chair the Maryland Transportation Authority’s board, the Maryland Port Commission and the Maryland Aviation Commission. He also joins the Metro board.

I-270 corridor needs bus lanes, Metro extension to improve transit, Montgomery planners say

Slater, who joined MDOT in 1999 and also served as state highway administrator, was known for his calm demeanor and ability to placate state lawmakers and local officials, even making project opponents feel heard. He often responded to testy questions on controversial projects with, “We’ll look into that and get right back to you.”

An MDOT spokeswoman said Slater declined an interview request. In a news release from the Tampa-area tolling authority, Slater cited the authority’s financial strength, “community involvement” and what he called its international reputation for pursuing technology to support electric and autonomous vehicles.

Slater became transportation secretary in early 2020, amid a years-long feud between the state and the Purple Line project’s primary construction contractor over who should pay for extensive construction delays and cost overruns. The contractor later quit the 16-mile project after a legal battle, which led to most construction stalling over the past 17 months as the state and private consortium managing the project have sought a new contractor.

New Purple Line contractor selected to resume full construction this spring

Slater’s tenure at MDOT also included Gov. Larry Hogan (R) pursuing a private team to expand I-270 and part of the Beltway with toll lanes in exchange for keeping most of the toll revenue over 50 years.

The proposal, which is under federal environmental review, has drawn criticism from Montgomery County planners, environmental groups, transit advocates and some local officials. It’s in the early design phase under a “predevelopment agreement” with Australian toll road operator Transurban and Australian investment bank Macquarie. The team has the right of first refusal for the decades-long deal.

Maryland board approves first contract to design toll lanes for Beltway, I-270