Interim Roads Chief Driving S.C. Transportation Department

Christy Hall knows how to patch a pot hole.

📅   Wed January 20, 2016 - Southeast Edition
Cassie Cope - THE STATE OF COLUMBIA


In addition to fixing pot holes, Hall — the interim secretary of the S.C. Department of Transportation — also has designed roads, overhauled the finances of the state’s roads agency and managed its 4,500 workers through two natural disasters.
In addition to fixing pot holes, Hall — the interim secretary of the S.C. Department of Transportation — also has designed roads, overhauled the finances of the state’s roads agency and managed its 4,500 workers through two natural disasters.

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) Christy Hall knows how to patch a pot hole.

Step 1. Shovel out the lose material.

Step 2. Pour in new asphalt.

Step 3. Compact the repair.

In addition to fixing pot holes, Hall — the interim secretary of the S.C. Department of Transportation — also has designed roads, overhauled the finances of the state's roads agency and managed its 4,500 workers through two natural disasters.

In January, Hall is likely to become the permanent secretary of the state Transportation Department.

Senators, who must confirm Hall's appointment, point to her experience at all levels of the agency as qualifying her to take over, adding she likely will zip through the confirmation process, which begins Jan. 20.

Then, Hall officially will head the agency she has worked at for more than two decades.

Rising Through the Ranks

Hall grew up on a small farm in rural Abbeville County, learning the importance of hard work. Her mother worked as a supervisor at a shirt factory.

Hall said seeing her mother in charge of producing quality work in a timely manner helped her understand the production-related requirements of running a business.

“Those lessons definitely have followed me,' said Hall, who attended Calhoun Falls High School.

Wanting to become a math teacher, Hall went to Lander College, studying education and math. But during a student-teaching stint, Hall decided she did not have a gift for teaching.

So she transferred to Clemson University in pursuit of a civil engineering degree — not common for women in the early ‘90s. Often, Hall said, she was one of only three women in her engineering classes.

The S.C. Department of Transportation recruited Hall out of college.

After working in Columbia, Hall did a six-month stint in the field in Greenville, wearing a hard hat and steel-toed boots as she watched contractors build roads.

Eventually, she worked her way up to oversee construction at the Transportation Department's Greenville district office. There, she oversaw operations in Abbeville, Anderson, Edgefield, Greenwood, Laurens, McCormick, Newberry and Saluda counties, managing 538 employees and a $16.6 million budget.

Paying Backlogged Bills

In November 2011, Robert St. Onge, then head of the Transportation Department, asked Hall to come back to Columbia to help fix the agency's backlog of unpaid invoices.

The first thing Hall did was determine how much the agency owed — more than $90 million.

S.C. Treasurer Curtis Loftis said Hall “managed the situation perfectly.'

Hall was brutally honest with everybody, Loftis said, adding he was tough on her, too, because he wanted answers.

“In government, when you start asking people about money, the answers become very slippery,' Loftis said. “Not once did I think Christy was anything other than forthright with me.'

The Transportation Department's financial team laid out how much the bills were and what type — utilities, contractors, consultants. Hall realized solving the backlog would require prioritizing payments.

Instead of paying the oldest invoices first, the agency began paying bills that qualified for federal reimbursement. Then, it used that federal money to help pay other bills.

“We needed to spend money to make money,' said Hall, who whittled down the agency's past-due bills to zero without requesting a bailout from the S.C. Legislature.

Responding to Natural Disasters

The financial disaster previewed a natural disaster Hall had to manage next.

In February 2014, snow and ice covered much of South Carolina. Hall, who just had taken over as the Transportation Department's acting secretary after St. Onge resigned, dispatched Transportation workers to clear roads of trees and limbs that had broken under the weight of ice.

In October, when record rains and flooding hit South Carolina, Hall once more was acting secretary, after the resignation of secretary Janet Oakley.

The Transportation Department was faced with having to repair more than 500 roads while it also started removing debris for flooded-out residents with water-ruined mattresses, appliances and furniture.

The agency erased the lines it normally uses to divide the state into service districts and brought in crews from counties not hit as hard to help in disaster areas.

Hall, who lives in Saluda, stayed in Columbia for six days, sleeping in her Transportation Department office and spending time at the state Emergency Management headquarters, briefing the public daily.

By the end of October, Hall's agency had reopened the majority of the closed roads. As of mid-December, only 53 — requiring major repairs, including replacements and dam repairs — remained closed.

After the flooding, Gov. Nikki Haley formally nominated Hall to lead the agency full time.

Taking the Helm

Most legislators give Hall high marks for her agency's response to the flood, said state Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley, who heads the Senate Transportation Committee that will hold a hearing about Hall's appointment in January.

Grooms expects a unanimous vote by committee members to approve Hall. He touts her knowledge of how the roads agency works — from engineering to finance.

“Christy knows from Day 1 what's effective and what's not.'

Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, has nothing but the highest praise for Hall, noting she came up through the ranks at the roads agency.

Hall says those ranks inspire her.

Transportation Department workers “put their life on the line to keep the state's traffic moving,' she said. “Whether it's standing next to 300 degree [Fahrenheit] asphalt being used to pave a lane or quickly patching a pothole, standing next to traffic zooming by.'