This week, the House Transportation Committee will hold confirmation hearings for Georgia’s first transportation planning director.
The nominee, former Department of Transportation (DOT) staff member Todd Long, was selected by Gov. Sonny Perdue and confirmed by a special transportation subcommittee last week.
The planning director, referred to by some as the transportation czar, was created by SB 200 that was passed by the legislature this past session and subsequently signed into law by the governor.
Following years of frustration with the management of DOT and its delays in getting highways repaired or built, SB 200 was an attempt by the governor and legislature to restructure the ”dysfunctional” transportation department and take a more active role in the transportation process.
The governor gains more control in the transportation process by appointing the planning director, who will assume the responsibility of developing the DOT’s long-range plans and lists of specific highway projects. The final list of highway projects authorized for construction will be subject to review by the governor, adding even more power to an office that is generally seen as one of the more powerful in the nation.
Although the planning director will serve at the pleasure of the governor, he must be confirmed by the House Transportation Committee. Interestingly, the Senate will have no vote in this particular part of the process.
However, the Senate, along with the House, will have the opportunity to choose which projects on the DOT’s long-range plan that it wants to fund so long as the total amount doesn’t exceed 20 percent of the available funds. The ability to control transportation money, long relished by the legislature, will now become a reality.
Once identified by the planning director and funded by the legislature, the DOT will still have the responsibility of carrying out the long range plan. The DOT commissioner will continue to be responsible for the day-to-day operations of the department; however the DOT board, once regarded as the plum of all state boards, will now have far less responsibility and authority.
While nearly everyone sees these changes as some of the most significant in the state’s recent history, claiming that it will change the face of politics in Georgia, not all are happy with the changes.
Most of the criticism centers around the expanded power given to the governor, who, critics claim, now will have the ability to control which highways get built and which do not.
Although they will control the funding of the projects, some lawmakers fear that the governor will now have a big stick to threaten them with if they don’t vote right on legislation pushed by his office.
Still others claim that it will create more opportunities for corruption by both the governor and legislature by allowing politics to enter into the awarding of lucrative highway construction contracts.
Others believe that this new structure will result in pushing initiatives stalled in the current DOT system such as “public-private” ventures with companies that want to develop toll road projects in Georgia.
Whatever the case may be, one thing everyone agrees on is that without new funding sources, very few new highways and mass transit projects will be built in the near future. While the issue of transportation management may have been addressed by SB 200, transportation funding remains an unresolved issue.
A number of proposals to raise money for transportation, most significantly a regional vs. state-wide transportation sales tax, have been debated in the legislature during the past few years but a consensus has yet to be reached.
For the most part, the changes resulting from SB 200 should be positive, giving more authority and responsibility to elected officials. However, until funding is addressed, money will continue to be the problem with transportation needs in our state.