Inside City Hall
A transportation department without a traffic chief? Yup, for five years running
“It is kind of ridiculous,” says Steve Sharkey, DOT’s new director. And here is why the job will remain vacant for the foreseeable future.
Above: At Lombard and South streets at 4:15 p.m. (Mark Reutter)
For those of you who, after the day’s work is done, are fated to plod up President Street or limp down Lombard or inch along the other asphalt arteries where the average area commuter spends 47 hours a year clogged in traffic – consider this:
Baltimore’s Department of Transportation has been missing a traffic chief for the last five years.
That’s a critical vacancy that extends across three mayorships and dozens of controversies over one-way streets, bike lanes, traffic signaling, pedestrian safety, “complete streets” advocacy and “don’t block the box” campaigns.
“How do you have a transportation department without a chief of traffic,” Councilman Leon Pinkett wondered during a hearing last week by the newly formed Transportation Committee chaired by Councilman Ryan Dorsey.
“Isn’t this one of the core functions of a transportation department,” Pinkett continued, addressing Steve Sharkey, the fifth DOT director since 2016 (counting two “acting” stints by Frank Murphy).
“It is kind of ridiculous,” Sharkey agreed.
“We are hugely lacking in traffic engineers,” he told the committee. “It’s been an obvious need that’s not been addressed.”
A 20-mph Town
Sharkey became DOT director last May on the heels of Michelle Pourciau’s resignation.
Pourciau never got around to appointing a traffic chief during a brief reign punctuated by outbursts of “publicly humiliating and demeaning DOT employees,” according to a recent report by the Office of the Inspector General.
She wasn’t alone in slamming on the brakes at DOT.
Also in the mix was James T. “Jim” Smith Jr., the septuagenarian former Baltimore County executive.
After helping bankroll Catherine Pugh’s 2016 election as mayor, Smith picked up a $180,000-a-year City Hall job overseeing Pourciau, whereupon he scuttled bike lanes and meddled in county politics until he, too, departed city employ in the wake of the Healthy Holly scandal.
Community activist Kelly Cross remembers talking to Smith shortly before he became Pugh’s “chief of strategic alliances.” A group of European investors were interested in developing a streetcar network in Baltimore and locating a manufacturing plant in the city, Cross told Smith.
Jim Smith’s comment marked the end of talk about streetcars.
“Jim’s response was ‘This is a slow town. You’re running at 60 miles an hour, and Baltimore is a 20 miles-per-hour town.’”
His comment marked the end of any more talk about streetcars, Cross said.
Man with a Mural
Completing the circle of complacency was William H. Johnson.
His 2013-16 tenure as DOT director was marked by the collapse of 26th Street into a railway cut and an oversized wall mural he commissioned of himself and former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake at the Benton Building headquarters of the agency.
After he left, the mural lingered on at HQ because no one really cared.
So did the vacancy created when Baltimore’s last traffic chief, Robert Snyder, fell by the wayside.
A 32-year veteran of Maryland Department of Transportation, Snyder was called out of retirement in 2014 to head the city’s traffic division. He impressed people like A. Elina Thompson, Mt. Washington Improvement Association’s traffic calming coordinator, with his expertise and enthusiasm.
“Pourciau got one thing right – we have woefully underinvested in our signaling infrastructure.”
“He had analyzed the traffic in the entire area before our meeting and had a clear vision of what was needed,” she told The Brew.
But Synder was gone less than four months after he arrived, resigning under circumstances that neither he nor the agency would disclose because they involved “personnel issues.”
Nice Consulting Jobs
The latest DOT director, a transplant from the Department of General Services, expressed keen interest last week in getting a top-notch traffic engineer on board.
But Sharkey held out little hope that he could hire anyone before mid-2020. “I know several talented traffic engineers, but they have nice consulting jobs,” he said, most of them working for Baltimore City or nearby jurisdictions.
Who’d risk an easy $55-an-hour reviewing routine DOT documents in favor of negotiating a neighborhood complete streets plan among bickering drivers, cyclists, pedestrians and homeowners – or tackling the city’s erratic and antiquated traffic signaling system?
“Pourciau got one thing right – we have woefully underinvested in our signaling infrastructure,” says a former DOT manager.
“That’s something the agency and the mayor have been ducking for years.”
Getting Your Butt Kicked
James E. Harkness Jr., the last traffic chief who worked for Baltimore for more than four months, was paid just $91,000 a year.
In today’s market, getting a qualified engineer would cost at least $125,000, the former DOT manager says, adding that he doubted the mayor’s office would permit such an outlay.
Which gets us to politics:
Even if DOT posted the job quickly, Sharkey told Dorsey’s committee it was unlikely that any qualified candidate would agree to work for the city before April 28, 2020.
That’s the date of the Democratic Party primary.
As an “at will” employee, a traffic engineer is subject to the same dynamics that beset all top personnel in city agencies – namely, “getting called over to City Hall to get your butt kicked,” says the former manager.
The trick is this, he explains: “As you’re getting your butt kicked, be sure to be in with the right faction.”