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Crawford: It's time to move past DOT soap operas

POSTED: July 30, 2008 5:02 a.m.

People who enjoy watching soap operas should turn off their TV sets and start tuning in to the Department of Transportation and the appointed commission that oversees it, the State Transportation Board. Over the past few months, it's been a much more entertaining show.

All of the elements for a top-rated soap are there: sex, money, greed, lust, power, and, oh yeah, some politics thrown in as well.

It started last fall when Gov. Sonny Perdue and Speaker Glenn Richardson had a death-match struggle over who the new DOT commissioner should be. The governor wanted the job to go to one of his agency heads, a woman with impressive academic credentials named Gena Abraham. The speaker insisted that his pal, Vance Smith, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, should get the appointment. There was more arm-twisting going on than a chiropractic convention.

Richardson lost when the State Transportation Board sided with the governor and voted 7-6 to give the job to Abraham. The hot-tempered speaker vowed to get revenge on board Chairman Mike Evans when Evans came up for reappointment to the board in January (legislators from each congressional district elect the individual board members).

Although Richardson put enormous pressure on his House members, five of them defiantly voted to elect Evans to another five-year term. Richardson then punished his underlings by stripping them of their committee assignments and banishing their legislative offices to another zip code.

The rebellious House members said it was more important to keep a qualified person on the board and try to get the financial mess at DOT cleared up. It looked like the fussing and feuding might subside for a little while.

The brave stand of the five House members was all for naught, however. Evans abruptly resigned from the board in April after admitting he had been having a personal relationship with Abraham, whose election as commissioner started this whole thing in the first place. Evans was one of the board members who had voted to give Abraham her job.

While the Transportation Board was mulling over the Abraham affair (they eventually voted to reprimand her for not being more forthcoming about her ties to Evans), another sex scandal erupted as two black employees at DOT complained that a white Transportation Board member made harassing comments to them. That board member later resigned and the two women were paid $150,000 by DOT in a settlement.

This is all very titillating stuff to read about in the newspapers, but while this soap opera was distracting the public's attention, Georgia's transportation problems were getting worse by the day.

Our highways are more congested than almost any other state's. There's been little progress made on commuter rail projects that might relieve some of the highway congestion. There are many local highway projects that will never be undertaken because there is no money to pay for them, even though past DOT administrations had made a commitment to build them.

While Abraham and her subordinates try to sort out the complicated accounting problems at DOT, our legislative leadership has been so consumed by political bickering that they have been unable to pass any substantive measures that might address the transportation infrastructure crisis, such as the regional sales tax for road projects that crashed on the last night of the General Assembly session.

There is much work to be done and we're running out of time to do it. The state's political leadership needs to figure out how to modify the current hodgepodge of sales and motor fuel taxes to raise more money for transportation. Then they need to reach an agreement on how much should be put into highways and how much should be used for bus and rail transit.

There are reasons to be at least a little optimistic. Abraham seems to be on firmer ground as she tries to revamp some of DOT's antiquated practices. When legislators met recently to replace the Transportation Board member who resigned over the sexual harassment complaint, they were able to elect a new member without any fighting between Richardson, Perdue, and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle.

It's possible that the soap opera at DOT is under control, and the leadership can now start to work seriously on Georgia's overwhelming transportation problems.

Somebody tell me I'm not crazy.

Tom Crawford is the editor of Capitol Impact's Georgia Report, an Internet news service at that covers government and politics in Georgia. Columnist Bill Shipp remains on temporary hiatus.



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