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Crawford: State DOT is seeking the right turn
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The State Transportation Board has elected yet another commissioner for that troubled agency: state Rep. Vance Smith, R-Pine Mountain, a person who has some expertise in highway construction because his family-owned business did a lot of road grading back in Harris County.

Smith will be the fourth person in two years to serve as Department of Transportation commissioner, which typically budgets more than $2 billion a year to build our highways. If you think the continuing turnover in the top job is an indication of turmoil at DOT, you're right.

Smith will take over a crippled department that is out of money, losing much of its authority to the governor's office and unable to handle most highway construction projects unless they have federal stimulus funds to pay for them.

That point was vividly illustrated last week when the Transportation Board signed off on 35 highway projects to be started in July. Of those 35 projects, 34 are being undertaken only because of the availability of stimulus funds.

The department has been squeezed by declining motor fuel tax revenues and the inability to get the legislature to adopt a new funding source for transportation improvements. There are also internal accounting issues that prompted a special audit of the DOT last year.

"We are broke," said Gerald Ross, the interim DOT commissioner who will now return to his old job as chief engineer.

Many of DOT's financial problems were caused by Perdue in the early years of his administration. Anxious to get highways built more quickly, Perdue launched a "Fast Forward" program in which he urged DOT to speed up construction projects that were still on the drawing board.

Under pressure from the governor's office, DOT started committing itself to highway contracts before the money to pay for them had even been received.

"I think we're looking at the effects of Fast Forward," state auditor John Thornton said last year after a review of DOT's books revealed a deficit approaching $1 billion. "Advanced construction contracts being accelerated, when you get down to it, really caused this shortfall."

"When you try to do in six years what normally takes 18, you change the dynamics," Thornton said. "It can cause stress."

All throughout the financial mess that he was partly responsible for causing, Perdue has been a persistent critic of DOT management for their inability to get the budget straightened out. That makes him comparable to the arsonist who sets a house on fire and then complains that the fire department doesn't get there quickly enough.

Because of the department's ongoing problems, Perdue pushed for passage this year of SB 200, legislation that gives him more control over the DOT. The governor now appoints a planning director — Perdue's choice was highway planner Todd Long, who worked at DOT for 18 years — who determines which highway projects will be funded by the state.

SB 200 has been criticized for being sloppily drafted, hastily passed, and overly vague as to how DOT will be restructured. It appears to be a law that is begging for a lawsuit to challenge its constitutionality. It could end up making the situation at DOT worse instead of better.

At this point, two things need to happen for Georgia's transportation agency to get out of the ditch.

Perdue needs to stop meddling in DOT's affairs and give the agency's new commissioner a realistic chance to get them straightened out. That, of course, is not likely to happen. Now that Perdue has the power to appoint the planning director who decides which projects will get funded, he and every future governor will have a powerful motivation to continue interfering with DOT management.

Legislators also need to stop posturing and agree on something — a statewide sales tax, an increase in the gasoline tax, whatever — that will generate funds to pay for badly needed highways and transit facilities. Yes, that's a tax increase, but you can't sit around and pretend that free market forces are going to magically solve the state's transportation woes.

Even with all of these problems hanging over him, Smith somehow remains confident that he can find a way to deal with them.

"We can certainly take a state that's great and continue to move it forward," he said. "We're going to move forward in the 21st century."

Tom Crawford is the editor of Capitol Impact's Georgia Report, an Internet news service at www.gareport.com. His column appears regularly on Wednesdays.

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