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DOT moving on despite distractions

Board elects temporary chairmen to serve until June

POSTED: May 26, 2008 5:00 a.m.
HARRIS BLACKWOOD/The Times

Bill Kuhlke Jr. shakes hands with a well-wisher after being named interim chairman of the state transportation board. On the right is DOT Commissioner Gena Abraham. Standing to the left is Larry Walker, the acting vice chairman.

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TOCCOALeaders of the state transportation board said Thursday that the Department of Transportation is quickly moving past the controversy over the commissioner and her relationship with a former board chairman.

The board, meeting in Toccoa, elected a temporary chairman and vice chairman to serve until June, when permanent officers will be elected. Bill Kuhlke Jr. of Augusta was elected chairman and former state Rep. Larry Walker of Perry was named vice chairman.

"We realized there have been some distractions, but we’ve got a job to do," Kuhlke said.

At its April meeting, then-Chairman Mike Evans resigned after informing the board he and Commissioner Gena Abraham were dating. The board later voted to keep Abraham on the job.

"We’ve got a work session scheduled in June and the commissioner has got a lot of good ideas on the table and the board has some ideas in terms of moving forward," Kuhlke said.

Walker agreed, saying transportation issues are complex.

"It’s a fast-growing state; we’re adding the equivalent of the city of Augusta or Macon, 100,000 people, every year," Walker said. "We had a little disturbance, but not much."

Also on Thursday, Abraham briefed board members on the status of a commuter rail to and from Atlanta.

"Our studies show the Athens to Atlanta line would have more riders to begin with," Abraham said following the meeting. "But we currently have federal dollars for the Atlanta to Lovejoy line that we would like to start using."

She said that express buses operated by the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority are gaining the highest ridership on the Lovejoy route.

The Athens-Atlanta route, which would include stops at Emory University, dubbed the "brain train," has also been discussed with a possible triangular route through Gainesville.

However, Abraham said there are currently no federal funds for the Athens line.

To be determined is who would operate the train system and finding matching funds for a current federal grant of $108 million. Among those mentioned as possible operators are Georgia Regional Transportation Authority or the Rail Passenger Authority, a board which would have to be reconstituted. Others expressing an interest in operating the line include Amtrak and Norfolk Southern railroad.

Abraham also expressed her concerns over a proposal to give motorists a summer holiday on the federal gas tax.

The national proposal by Arizona Sen. and Republican presidential hopeful John McCain to suspend the federal gas tax from Memorial Day through Labor Day would cost the state some $300 million in federal funds. Abraham noted there has been no provision for replacing that amount, saying that Georgia can’t afford the cut.

Under McCain’s proposal the 18.4 cents per gallon federal tax on gasoline and the 24.4 cents per gallon on diesel fuel would be suspended for the summer, saving drivers with a 15 gallon tank $2.76 on gasoline and $3.66 on diesel.

"From a personal perspective, I’d love to see gas prices go down," Abraham said. "But as the head of the department, we need to keep those tax collections in place."



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