When the proposed Red Line transit project was canceled in 2015, Holly Arnold was angry. As the manager for the Maryland Transit Administration’s capital program at the time, it had been her job to plan out the money for the new east-west light rail. She loved the job. But then her boss’s boss canned the project.

“Having to take the funding out of the program was one of the most depressing days of my career,” Arnold said in an interview Friday, just after the announcement by Gov. Wes Moore that the relaunched project would be a light rail, not a rapid bus.

After an eight-year hiatus, the Red Line is back. Arnold is not only thrilled about the project’s revival, now she’s in charge of it.

Officials are touting the Red Line as a project that will greatly improve transit service, which many riders have long complained can be slow and unreliable. But critics, such as former Gov. Larry Hogan, have called it a waste of taxpayers’ money.

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Now it will fall to the 41-year-old Arnold, a self-described “true believer” in transit, to prove the naysayers wrong.

“I think we all want to just like flip a switch and have a better transit system. Like I wish I could do that,” said Arnold, a daily rider of the transit system. “It takes time — to build projects, to hire people to improve the things that we want to improve.”

Farm to board room table

Arnold’s family is a one-car household. It’s not just because her family members are committed to reducing their carbon footprint or want to save some money.

“I hate driving,” Arnold said with a chuckle during a recent interview.

She hops on the No. 54 most mornings — typically she’ll say “hey” to the bus driver and rev up a little small talk. It’s not just to be nice — she says she wants employees of all levels to feel empowered to come to her with their concerns. And she never wants to forget what it’s like being a rider who depends on the system she runs.

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A woman with short brown hair sits in a bus seat and talks with the woman sitting in front of her.
Maryland Transit Administrator Holly Arnold rides a bus in Baltimore and talks with a passenger. (Daniel Zawodny)

“I see the mistakes we make, I see the issues that pop up, I see how we handle things and to handle them better,” Arnold said. “I’m a true believer in transit, I’m not bullshitting.”

Arnold was raised on a 400-acre Ohio farm, not a bus or train in sight. Her first job was picking tomatoes for her uncle. She went from farm girl to getting a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Pittsburgh, where she relied on the bus system. She fell in love with public transit in the process.

Now she’s trying to pass on that love to her two young daughters. Their favorite is when a “bendy” — two bus shells connected by an accordion-like gangway — shows up, she said.

“There’s not a lot of pretense when you’re out shoveling manure,” said Nan Rohrer, who was a colleague of Arnold’s at the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore more than 15 years ago. It was the job that brought Arnold to Baltimore.

Rohrer, who now lives in upstate New York, said she and Arnold had an “instant connection” from both being farm kids; Rohrer thinks it’s what keeps Arnold’s feet on the ground. What makes her roll up her sleeves and take on big problems.

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In 2008, while working at the Downtown Partnership, Arnold was in a meeting with someone at the Booz Allen Hamilton consulting firm and noticed a map of the Washington, D.C., Metro system on his wall. She started talking about the MTA, about what she thought Baltimore could do to improve its transit service.

The guy emailed Arnold shortly afterward and offered her a job as a transportation analyst.

Months later, Arnold was calling other transit agencies to figure out how they kept their light rail vehicles’ brakes in check after ones in Baltimore were gunked up by wet leaves, prompting a weekslong shutdown of most of the system.

“I will out-research literally anybody else in the room,” Arnold said.

While some public servants jump ship to the private sector for more money, Arnold did the opposite. In 2012, the MTA offered her, at the time an on-site consultant, the chance to do the job from the inside. She was done making recommendations, she said — she wanted to implement changes.

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“It was about making the agency better, trying to uncover rocks and fix things,” said Arnold.

Nine years and a few promotions later, Hogan appointed her as the agency’s new administrator.

“Governor Hogan was proud to announce Holly as the MTA administrator where she played a key role in his administration’s record investments in transit,” said Blake Kernen, a spokesperson for Hogan, who is now running for the U.S. Senate. “He wishes her well.”

Last December, Arnold was thrust into the spotlight when safety concerns prompted state transportation officials to abruptly shut down the north-south light rail line that connects northern Baltimore County with Anne Arundel County, including the airport.

She held a late-afternoon press conference and explained the decision, which arose from a small explosion on a railcar that had been rehabilitated by an outside contractor.

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By the next day, her agency was running shuttle buses between light rail stations, and her agency shortly after established a webpage where the public could track repairs. She took to X, formerly Twitter, to send out updates each step of the way. Light rail trains were running again in just over two weeks. Officials also fast-tracked a request for federal funds to replace the aging rail cars, which was approved months later.


Arnold leads an agency with about 3,600 employees trying to keep buses and trains on time in a country made for cars. In addition to the light rail line, the MTA oversees Baltimore’s Metro subway system, most Baltimore-area buses, the MARC commuter rail and commuter buses linking different parts of the state.

Most Maryland public officials that make decisions about public transportation don’t use it themselves. When the light rail shut down last year, very few people knew what a “midlife overhaul” — rehab work done on railcars — was. At meetings of the new Baltimore Regional Transit Commission, Arnold often spends time explaining how the industry works to a roomful of suits. On more than one occasion, they’ve been dumbfounded by her facts and figures.

In an industry of mostly white-collared, white men, she is a woman with tattoos and dyed hair. She started her job as administrator when she was eight months pregnant. The flowers on her half-sleeve — a chrysanthemum, a violet, a daisy — represent her family. The tattoos help her chum it up with bus mechanics, she said.

Throughout her career, she’s had to justify why she’s in the conference room — she still has moments of feeling that were she not a woman, people in meetings wouldn’t talk to her the way they do.

A very close up image of the face of a woman with short blonde hair wearing rainbow-colored sunglasses.
Maryland Transit Administrator Holly Arnold is overseeing the first expansion to Baltimore’s transit system in decades. (Daniel Zawodny)

“We [as women] are judged on how we react and how we speak and in what tones, and we’re judged more harshly than men and how we present ourselves as leaders,” said Rohrer, who also has held leadership roles and faced sexism because of it. Arnold commands respect while also giving it, Rohrer said.

“One of the big things I’m trying to change at the MTA is trying to elevate women, elevate their ability to speak at meetings, making sure that their voices are heard,” Arnold said.

That goes for everyone, from operators to other senior positions. She’s picked women for new leadership roles, including the project lead for the Red Line and the agency’s new office of customer experience. Arnold doesn’t want them to wait for her to make important decisions.

“Push the power down, make the decision, move on,” Arnold said.

Getting things done sometimes means trusting her team to make the right call. It’s helped get applications for big federal grants over the finish line. It’s helped to hire enough bus drivers during a historic shortage to help improve service.

Her boss, Maryland Transportation Secretary Paul Wiedefeld, has nothing but praise for her.

“She’s extremely bright, she surrounds herself with really good people, she’s recruiting good people,” Wiedefeld said in a recent interview. She is firm and demanding with contractors, but also a great listener, he said. “And she has this tremendous passion that is totally needed for that type of job.”

A profile image of two men and one woman sitting in a line looking to the left side of the frame.
Gov. Wes Moore, Maryland Transportation Secretary Paul Wiedefeld and Maryland Transit Administrator Holly Arnold listen to remarks at a ribbon cutting for the MTA’s first zero emissions buses at the Kirk Avenue bus depot on Feb. 27, 2024. (Daniel Zawodny)

But when a person is late to work because the bus didn’t show or the Metro suddenly had to close, how passionate the system’s leader is may feel irrelevant.

There’ve been plenty of misfires to frustrate riders. Just last year, the Department of Justice found that the MTA was at one point failing people with disabilities in violation of federal law with subpar MobilityLink paratransit service, and the light rail and Metro both suffered multiday shutdowns. Some students have to spend hours on the bus every day just to go a handful of miles to school.

Maryland Transit Administration Administrator Holly Arnold at the MTA’s Red Line open house at the University of Maryland, Baltimore’s SMC Campus Center on Saturday, Nov. 4, 2023. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

Arnold has heard the criticism about her and her agency — that the system was and still is dysfunctional, that she’s a “Hogan holdover.” She knows public transportation in Baltimore still doesn’t serve everyone as best it should.

That’s why the future Red Line gives her hope. It’s the first major system expansion since the light rail was finished more than three decades ago. Local and state officials all the way up the chain to Moore have said that it will bring jobs and development, that it will transform the region. Realistically, it will be at least a decade until Baltimoreans know if all the promises bear fruit. If it does, there’s an Ohio farm girl to thank for watering the seeds.

She knows that there’s so much more work still to do. That’s why she wakes up and she gets on the bus.