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Posted: January 31, 2009 11:59 p.m.

At DOT, change is on the way

Political science professors for years have been teaching their students that Georgia’s affairs are managed by the traditional three branches of government: the executive, the legislative, and the judicial.

That is not the whole story, however, because our state also has a fourth branch of government: the Department of Transportation.

The DOT is a political fiefdom run by the State Transportation Board, whose members are elected by legislators. Transportation Board members are empowered to pick a commissioner, usually a career highway engineer, to run the agency that spends billions of dollars a year on roads and bridges.

The constitutional structure of the DOT is supposed to provide the department with some independence from the governor’s office, but that ceased to be the case nearly 20 years ago. Zell Miller, Roy Barnes and Sonny Perdue used varying amounts of political muscle to persuade the Transportation Board to appoint their personal choices as DOT commissioner.

In addition to that erosion of autonomy, the DOT has some perplexing management problems these days. The department finished the last fiscal year with a budget deficit of $456 million, a shortfall that department officials are still struggling to explain. Transportation officials have basically made commitments to pave a lot of highways without the money to pay for them.

The biggest issue facing the department is that it does not do a very good job of carrying out its basic responsibility: transporting people from point A to point B.

In the metro Atlanta area that is now home to half the state’s population, the highways are just as crowded as ever and the commuting times for Georgia workers remain among the highest in the nation. The mess has gotten so bad that the metro area’s business leaders are demanding that the General Assembly do something before we choke to death on our own congestion.

The accumulation of problems could finally force legislators to make some far-reaching changes during this session. Picking up on an idea floated by House Majority Leader Jerry Keen and others, lawmakers could be ready to shift the decision-making responsibilities from the Transportation Board to another entity whose members would be appointed equally by the governor, lieutenant governor, and speaker of the House.

It would be a momentous change because legislators would be giving up one of the few perks of power that is part of their job, the ability to name members of the Transportation Board. Are they ready to do that? Maybe so.

"I have to believe that there will be few objections to giving up the ‘privilege’ of electing DOT Board members," a legislator confided. "I say this because it is a far different time from years ago and the reign of King Gillis. Legislators realize the transportation system is broken and that their constituents want it fixed, and fixed yesterday.

"The past few DOT board elections have not been pretty as you well know. Everyone came out losers in the long run. I was put under so much pressure by everyone from a U.S. Senator to a client to vote for a particular person that I got to a point that I did not want to even answer the phone."

The lawmaker concluded: "Bottom line: the days of the Wool Hat Boys and Mr. Gillis are gone. And we have ourselves one heck of a mess. Let’s make the system work better."

If legislators move ahead with this change, they will effectively move the transportation department back under the executive branch of government. Perhaps that will enable whoever sits in the governor’s office to bring some focus and consistency to the department’s activities.

It will not, however, solve the real problem that underlies the state’s transportation woes: we don’t have enough money under the current tax structure to build the highways and transit systems necessary to move our growing population.

DOT Commissioner Gena Evans laid out the situation succinctly to a legislative committee last week: "We have continuing transportation needs and yet we continue to under-invest. We have $2.4 billion worth of projects on the books that we can’t possibly fund."

Roads cost money. The General Assembly is controlled by leaders opposed to the idea of significant tax increases. Until you can resolve that conflict, all the bureaucratic restructurings in the world won’t make a bit of difference.

Tom Crawford is the editor of Capitol Impact’s Georgia Report, an Internet news service at www.gareport.com that covers government and politics in Georgia. He can be reached at tcrawford@capitolimpact.net .

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