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Georgia DOT chiefs post becomes a hot seat
Politics, private sector allure, road challenges lead to high turnover in high level job
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Revolving door

Here’s a list of Georgia Department of Transportation commissioners since 2000:

• Russell McMurry: 2015-

• Keith Golden: 2011-15

• Vance Smith: 2009-11

• Gena Abraham Evans: 2007-09

• Harold Linnekohl: 2003-07

• Tom Coleman: 2000-03

As Russell McMurry of Hall County was getting sworn in Jan. 20 as Georgia Department of Transportation’s new planning director, the revolving door that is that department’s top job swung again.

That same day, the State Transportation Board voted to promote him to a new and much more challenging job: DOT commissioner.

It marked another unusual chapter for a job that has changed hands six times in 15 years, with a sprinkling of interim commissioners in-between. In the years prior, such turnover was rare; Wayne Shackleford and Tom Moreland served in the post for 21 years between them.

Many factors play into the musical chairs, officials say. They include politics, the allure of higher pay in the private sector and just the pressures of managing a $2 billion department with more than 4,100 employees.

One person with a bird’s-eye view of the issue is Sam Wellborn, who at 23 years is the longest-serving member of the DOT board.

“I’ve been with good (commissioners) and I’ve been with bad ones,” he said. “I’m not going to single out people, but they all have different capabilities and characteristics.”

But generally, they come to the job in one of two ways — through the DOT ranks, such as McMurry, or the governor’s prodding.

“As a general statement, the career employee is by far the best commissioner,” said Wellborn, of Columbus. “(That person) has been there for 15, 20, 25 years, and knows the ropes, knows what to do and fully trained and ready to be commissioner.

“The political appointees are just there because some governor wanted them there.”

Vance Smith, who served 2009-11 as commissioner, was the last in the job to come from outside the DOT. He had served as a state House of Representatives member and worked in the construction business.

Speaking of the job’s turnover over the years, he said, “I guess the position became more political.”

“You get a different perspective with a new governor coming in ... and that’s not all bad either,” said Smith, who hails from Pine Mountain in West Georgia. “That way, you keep new ideas flowing.”

Much of the stability at DOT has been in its employees, many of whom have long tenures and wind up retiring from the agency, he said.

“Right now, a lot of knowledge is walking out the door because a lot of people are retiring,” Smith said. “But you bring in well-educated people from (Georgia) Tech and other schools, so that’s good too.”

Evans didn’t want to ‘count’ board votes

Some of the DOT’s stormier years took place around the tenure of Gena Abraham, later to become Gena Evans. She became commissioner in 2007, the first woman to hold the position in the state.

After less than a month in office, she found serious problems, as the department appeared to have no real accounting of projects, especially those on the drawing board.

During a speech in Gainesville at that time, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle said that active projects in Gov. Sonny Perdue’s “Fast Forward” transportation program may have had a deficit of $4 billion.

Saying the department was “in a shambles,” Cagle also said more than 1,400 lawsuits were pending against the DOT.

But Abraham’s tenure wouldn’t be marked by just financial worries. Though she was praised for correcting some woes within the department, her romance with then-DOT board Chairman Mike Evans is what drew headlines.

Evans resigned his post, saying he wanted to pursue the relationship. But with DOT policy forbidding an intimate relationship within the direct chain of command, the DOT commissioner — by this time married to Evans — eventually came under scrutiny.

Ousted in the spring of 2009, she left with bitterness.

“I realized pretty quickly that a part of my job was to count (board member) votes, and that was something I didn’t want to do for a living,” she said at the time.

Private sector ‘throws money at you’

Wellborn believes that DOT’s ship has been righted in recent years. He gives much credit to Keith Golden, whose retirement came as a surprise. But then again, not really.

“He was fully vested in his pension,” Wellborn said.

“Another issue is those pension plans become so lucrative for the long-term employee at a relatively young age in their career that a lot of them can leave with a nice pension and then get a really good job.”

Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia, agreed.

“You do (the job) for a couple of years and, in essence, get credentialed, then someone on in the private sector comes and throws some money at you,” he said. “You go out and be a consultant, make a lot more money than (from) the state.”

Plus, Bullock said, having to constantly deal with the legislators, governors and other political forces may lead the commissioner to think, “Yeah, I’ve got other things I can do with my time.”

State Rep. Carl Rogers, R-Gainesville, who served on the House Transportation Committee for 15 years, said the person in the commissioner’s job “needs to be a very strong personality.”

In addition to internal pressures, there are many external groups — from local governments to community improvement districts — demanding the commissioner’s time.

“It’s a very tough job and, on top of that, is appeasing the (14-member) DOT board, and they’re all asking you or pulling on you, as well,” Rogers said.

“Everybody’s pulling on your coattails, so it’s a very demanding, stressful job.”

Wellborn, who believes Golden was “the best commissioner we’ve ever had,” also believes the DOT is headed in the right direction with McMurry, who began his DOT career in 1990 as a civil engineering trainee.

“There’s no question in my mind that Russell will be an outstanding commissioner,” he said. “We’ve worked with him for so long already. There’s no learning curve, no time for him to settle in. He’s going to be fantastic from day one.

McMurry, 45, understands the history of the job and the transitions but believes his experience and knowledge of the state’s road needs will be a boost to him in the job.

“I was part of the executive team, so I feel like there’s a pretty seamless transition (from Golden),” he said. “The main thing is having a strategic vision and direction, and we have that.“

New transportation funding challenges

The future presents a new set of challenges for DOT commissioners.

In the 1990s, the federal gas tax may have been a cash cow for Georgia and other states as they crafted transportation budgets. But that’s not the case now, as more fuel-efficient cars and other factors are draining the Highway Trust Fund.

Plus, in Georgia, one of the nation’s fastest-growing states, there’s more and more road congestion, so demand for projects is outstripping supply of money.

Hall County alone has found in updating its long-term transportation plan that projections show the area getting $800 million less in revenues, nearly a third of what was projected in the 2040 plan.

State lawmakers, hoping to develop a more dependable revenue stream, have introduced a bill that would, among other things, replace the sales tax at the gas pump with an excise tax. Local governments statewide reacted almost immediately, saying such a move would cost them much-need revenue for schools, transportation and other needs.

McMurry said he also expects to carefully watch Congress as it considers ways to authorize transportation funding beyond May 31, when the current act expires.

“That would give some certainty that we can plan and get projects out, buy property for projects and take care of the maintenance that’s needed all the time,” he said.

“We live in interesting times,” McMurry said in an interview before the bill was announced by lawmakers. “As a nation, the way transportation has been funded historically (by a gas tax) ... is something everybody is looking at.“

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