Both sides in DOT dispute say they want faster road building

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ATLANTA -- If you've ever been stuck in traffic, jolted by a pothole or worried that a bridge was unsafe, then you're on the minds of some powerful people in Atlanta.

The state's top officials say they're determined to shake things up to get more roads built. And things seem pretty shaken.

On one hand, there is legislation to transfer responsibility for road building from the Department of Transportation along with the flow of gas-tax money that that state constitution requires be spent on roads and bridges. For years, legislators and governors have schemed over how to get control of that money, and finally Gov. Sonny Perdue, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and House Speaker Glenn Richardson found one.

They concluded that, without the political hurdle of a super majority in the Legislature to pass a constitutional amendment, they can simply appropriate the money to a new agency. As long as the new agency spends it on roads and bridges, there's no problem.

Their beef with the Transportation Department is that its board is elected, not by them, but legislators according to congressional district. They accuse the board of being unresponsive, but two who came up for re-election in February had no opposition.

Bill Kuhlke, the board chairman from Augusta, said he hasn't spoken to Mr. Perdue in eight weeks. The governor didn't tell him of plans to overhaul transportation and didn't seek his advice.

On the other hand, Mr. Cagle complains that none of the board members consulted him either when they were deciding to fire Transportation Commissioner Gena Evans last Thursday.

After the firing, Mr. Cagle vented to reporters.

"There's not one board member that called me up as the lieutenant governor of Georgia and said, 'We have a concern with the commissioner, and we're looking to move in this direction.' This is the board acting in an independent manner."

Board independence apparently is the crux of the issue.

The new agency, the State Transportation Authority, would be run by a secretary of transportation appointed by the governor, overseen by an 11-member board appointed by the trio, with a chairman appointed by the governor.

Mr. Cagle said the DOT board fired Ms. Evans because it resisted her reforms and resented her ties to the governor. Mr. Perdue, himself, said the board was dysfunctional.

Mr. Kuhlke, though, says the reason was the slow pace of road construction -- the very complaint both Mr. Perdue and Mr. Cagle voiced about the agency.

"The attitude of the board is that we're not moving as fast as we think we can and that we need to make a change to start getting projects out the door," Mr. Kuhlke said.

Ms. Evans has said new projects couldn't start without sufficient funding, a problem created before the recession by her predecessor and faulty accounting.

Mr. Kuhlke and board member Larry Walker, of Perry, voted against firing Ms. Evans, not out of confidence in her but because they sensed the timing was wrong.

In addition to the overhaul bill coming up for a vote this week in the Senate, the state is getting a check today for $931 million in federal stimulus funds for transportation projects. If the money isn't spent fast enough, it will go to other states.

There are more than $7 billion projects the state would like completed, but the challenge is getting all of the details squared away in time.

Before she was fired, Ms. Evans noted that many of the 5,478 employees were already working overtime. Still, the board voted to furlough them one day a month -- while rushing to get projects out the door.

Mr. Cagle complained that the DOT board had resisted the staff layoffs and furloughs that other state agencies are using to cope with the budget deficit. Now, he said the furloughs are coming too late.

Many rank-and-file legislators express little enthusiasm for the overhaul because it means giving up their power to elect the board. Democrats who control some congressional districts and have elected their representatives to the board have little reason to support the change. Even some Republicans say privately they're looking to at least get a tradeoff, such as the ability to elect the Board of Regents that governors now appoint.

Some consider Thursday's firing as proof an overhaul is needed. Others say it's evidence the board has a healthy independence.

One thing is undisputed. There is a lack of political sensitivity at DOT, considering a press conference was scheduled Thursday to announce the agency was "doing such a good job," said Mr. Walker, a longtime leader in the House.

Then he wryly told reporters, "Obviously, we've got problems."

Walter Jones is the bureau chief for the Morris News Service and has been covering state politics since 1998. He can be reached at walter.jones@morris.com or (404) 589-8424.

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WorriedAboutOurFuture
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WorriedAboutOurFuture 03/02/09 - 09:27 am
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Boy, what a surprise! I

Boy, what a surprise! I thought everything had to be going great guns at the DOT, given how wonderful and quickly everything has been handled here in the CSRA's road improvement projects. Dang. And things were just going so well.

jack
10
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jack 03/02/09 - 10:50 am
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Ever since the DOT atarted

Ever since the DOT atarted "improving" our roads, traffic has been a nighmare in west Augusta, especially at the intersection of Bobby Jones and Wheeler Rd, not to mention I-20 traffic jams miles long. If another agency can get the job done faster (and not make the area look like a moon scape or concrete wall), I'm for it.

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