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New era, same DOT, some say
Local lawmakers confident new boss can revamp agency
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In 1975, the Rev. Gene Brooks officiated at the funeral for legendary state highway commissioner "Mr. Jim" Gillis.

Brooks, who is retired and now lives in Gainesville, recalls that loudspeakers had to be erected in the yard of First Baptist Church of Soperton because of the overflow crowd that came to pay their respects.

Gillis presided over what was then called the State Highway Department from 1948 to 1955 and again from 1959 to 1970, when the department was a source of two things important to politicians: asphalt and jobs.

The post-war era saw a boom in paved roads, as Georgia emerged from a time when only the main thoroughfares were coated with a thin layer of black-top.

In the mid-1950s, Georgia began working on the federally funded interstate highway system.

Brooks said Gillis, a deacon at the Soperton church, was most proud of the fact that the initial interstate system through Atlanta was the first completed in a major city.

It was customary in Gillis’ era for county and city officials to pay a call on "Mr. Jim" to ask for state funds for a road project. The same was true for legislators, who could turn a coating of asphalt into a significant number of votes in an election year.

It has been nearly 40 years since Gillis left office, and state lawmakers say that the old political system of doling out road projects hasn’t changed much.

Former state Rep. Joe T. Wood Sr. of Gainesville used to park his car near the highway department building.

"I’d walk by and say good morning to Mr. Jim before I went to the capitol," Wood said, adding that lawmakers were often measured by how much "bacon" they could bring home.

"Getting roads was very important. In fact, it was one of my priorities," said Wood, who served from 1966 to 1988. "Securing support for I-985 was an accomplishment. But we had help. Troy Simpson was the DOT board member at the time from Cornelia, and he wanted the road to go up there."

Wood also represented Forsyth County at the time and helped in securing funds for Ga. 400.

As the General Assembly prepares to meet in January for its 2008 session, the Department of Transportation is in the crosshairs of a political power struggle.

At issue is control of the agency’s board, which can hire and fire the transportation commissioner.

In November, the board by a single vote margin voted to hire Gena Abraham, a state administrator who holds a doctorate in engineering. Abraham was the candidate of Gov. Sonny Perdue. She was challenged for the post by Vance Smith, a state representative who was the hand-picked candidate of House Speaker Glenn Richardson.

After less than a month in office, Abraham has found serious problems at the DOT.

The department appeared to have no real accounting of projects, especially those that were on the drawing board.

At last report, the number of projects numbered 9,211 with 2,470 currently under way.

During a speech in Gainesville last week, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle of Chestnut Mountain said that active projects in Gov. Sonny Perdue’s "Fast Forward" program may have a deficit of $4 billion.

Cagle, who said the department was "in a shambles," also pointed out that there are currently more than 1,400 lawsuits pending against the DOT.

Finding $4 billion in an $18 billion state budget is a tall order, and comes as lawmakers in high growth areas face constituents with major traffic problems.

"Road usage is up 40 percent," said Rep. James Mills, a Republican who represents the high growth South Hall area. "But we’ve only increased roads by 2 percent. That’s like trying to hook up a water hose to a fire hydrant."

But Mills is quick to point out that before new projects are offered, the DOT needs fixing.

"She (Abraham) had a monumental task," Mills said. "The DOT has been an organization which needs reorganization from top to bottom. Gena Abraham has assured us that’s what she‘s going to be working on."

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