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New secretary talks roads, air, rail

September 12, 2009

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley has picked Hagerstown native Beverley Swaim-Staley to be the state's first female secretary of transportation.

O'Malley's office says she will oversee Maryland's largest state agency, with more than 9,000 employees and a multibillion-dollar budget. She was sworn in Sept. 1; her appointment is subject to confirmation by the state Senate.

Last week, Swaim-Staley spoke with Herald-Mail staff writer Andrew Schotz. The questions and answers have been edited for space and clarity.

Q: What are the biggest issues for the department right now?

A: Like every government and everybody right now, the biggest issue is financial -- the impact that the economy has had on the revenues that support transportation. And also the state of the federal trust fund, which has been running out of money. So that's the first short-term and long-term critical issue.

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I think, though, that does give us an opportunity to plan and to think differently about transportation, so I don't want to say that that's all on the negative side, but (we're) certainly making sure that we keep our system preservation, which we're very proud of here in Maryland. I think we're known nationally for having a good, strong transportation system, a very safe, efficient system, and we want to make sure that that continues. That obviously is a little more challenging in times like this.

Q: State highway funds are taking a hit because of the current economy and cutbacks in the state budget. What has been and what will be the effect?

A: That's not something, certainly, that anybody wanted to do, but, unfortunately, since we have cut in the past year over $2 billion out of the state's capital program ... unfortunately, we all have to share in financial downturns. We have been able to help ourselves and in small ways, I think, to help the counties through the stimulus program ... We have been able to keep much of our state system preservation intact through fiscal year '09 and into fiscal year '10 because we're using that money, frankly, to focus on the basics, to focus on things like system preservation, which is primarily repaving and safety improvements. That has certainly helped, although it certainly has not replaced all those funds that we've had to cut. But, unfortunately, it's just the situation that we're in.

Q: What are the main projects in Washington County?

A: In terms of some of the major issues that we're working on there, we have the I-81 project planning study that we're involved in, that of course extends ... into both West Virginia and Pennsylvania. So we have a bridge there that we will be wanting to rehabilitate in the coming years. Of course, that'll be probably a shared project with West Virginia.

We have the U.S. 40-Dual Highway project that we have been working on with the Washington County officials. They have identified some portions of that certainly as a priority for them, so they asked that we add that to our state highway needs inventory. Unfortunately, of course, many of those projects that are in the planning stages -- getting back to hoping that some day, there's a longer-term federal solution. That's a solution that we're going to need to move some of the projects that we'd certainly like to do and are priorities for Washington County into construction someday.

But, as I said, we continue through the study process and the planning process with all of the counties so that hopefully, someday, I'm sure, when this economy recovers, we'll be able to work with the counties ... and move forward some of these things that are now in the study or the planning phase.

Q: I was told you played a key role in helping to move along the U.S. 40-Edgewood Drive project, which has had some delays.

A: Yes, unfortunately, we did have some issues with the bids the first time. But I believe that project has been moving along now and is now scheduled to be completed in 2011. And we were very pleased that the second time we did that, that we had good bids and we were able finally to approve that project moving forward.

Q: Does it help Hagerstown to have somebody who lived here in a high position, such as you have now? Are you more in tune with the area's needs than somebody else from, say, the Washington suburbs might be?

A: I don't know. I think (previous Secretary) John Porcari certainly tried to consider all areas equal. Certainly, one advantage is that I'm familiar with the area. Obviously, when I'm asked ... when I'm in discussions with county officials, I'm certainly very familiar, usually, with the areas that they're asking about because I do visit frequently ... For example, my mother-in-law lived near Edgewood Drive for a time, so I'm certainly frequently aware of some of what the congestion issues are, what some of the development activities that are going on, and that sort of thing. So I think it's helpful from that standpoint.

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