MONTGOMERY, AL (AP) Alabama lawmakers appear to be uncertain about a proposal to place the State Department of Transportation under the control of an appointed commission, which would select the transportation director.
The bill by Rep. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, is supported by Gov. Bob Riley and passed the Alabama House last session before dying in the Senate.
Under Ward’s plan, the governor would appoint a nine-member commission to staggered terms and the panel members would name the new highway director. Supporters say this would add continuity to road programs and prevent priorities for highway projects from changing every time a new governor is elected.
Currently the transportation director is picked by the governor.
In an Associated Press survey of legislators, only 34 percent of senators responding and 47 percent of House members said they support the proposal. A number of lawmakers indicated they are still undecided about the plan.
“A lot of folks still don’t understand exactly what it is,” Ward said of the proposed commission, which was one of the proposals in Riley’s campaign platform when he ran for governor in 2002.
Ward has pushed for the commission since he was elected to the Legislature in 2002 from Shelby County, a fast-growing Birmingham suburban area where officials have long complained that they have been bypassed for road projects because they have not been part of the political power base in Montgomery.
“What the commission does is remove a great deal of the political influence there was over road projects in the past,” Ward said.
Riley had expressed reservations about the commission proposal earlier in his administration, saying he didn’t want to proceed until progress was made resolving a long-running discrimination lawsuit against the Department of Transportation. Riley’s communications director, Jeff Emerson, said the governor believes the time is now right to establish the commission.
DOT director Joe McInnes said highway departments in most Southern states operate under similar commissions.
“It is very important that we have continuity that transcends administrations, because many of our projects are long term and it’s critical we continue work on these projects from administration to administration,” McInnes said.
He said an example is the project to four-lane Alabama 157 from Muscle Shoals in northwest Alabama to Interstate 65 at Cullman. He said the project has been in the works for 30 years and has stopped and started several times “at the discretion of the transportation director.”
One lawmaker said he doesn’t think a new commission is what’s needed to remove politics from road building decisions.
“I’m not convinced that adding another bureaucracy will fix the problem. Simply putting in a commission is not going to take politics out of it,” said Rep. Greg Albritton, R-Excel.
Veteran state Sen. Bobby Denton, D-Muscle Shoals, has long pushed for a commission to run the highway department.
“The biggest letdown is when someone announces they are going to build a road and then we change governors and it’s not on the next governor’s list,” Denton said.
But he said he has qualms about the current bill because he believes a nine-member commission would be unwieldy.
“I think if we get more than five we have a mess,” Denton said.
Denton said he has been pushing for a DOT commission for most of his almost three decades in the Senate. He said several governors have supported the concept, but that it’s hard for them to give up the power over road projects while they are in office.
“I think most governors think it’s a good idea, but they don’t want to do it while they are in the chair,” Denton said.