Alabama Rep. Cam Ward’s proposal to reorganize the Department of Transportation (DOT) may be paved with good intentions, but there’s plenty of debate over its effect on the politics of prioritizing road projects.
Under the legislation, which was approved by the state House by a 78-16 vote in January, a nine-member board appointed by the governor would appoint the transportation director.
Currently, the director is a cabinet-level position and serves under the governor by whom he or she is appointed.
The concept has been tossed around the Capitol since Gov. Bob Riley included it in his 2002 election platform and made it through the House last session before dying in the Senate.
In its current form, the legislation would create a board that would have a seat for each of the DOT’s nine districts, a move Ward expects would keep the department’s priorities more consistent.
While the board members would appoint the director, they would not be the ones making specific decisions on when road projects would be funded. Ward said that would remain in the hands of the director. The board would, however, guide the department’s long-term decisions and planning and could override the director’s decisions with a 75 percent vote.
With transportation directors changing each time a new governor is elected, Ward said the changing priorities have kept some projects on the five-year-plan for 30 years.
An example, ALDOT Director Joe McInnes told the Associated Press, is the proposal to four-lane Alabama 157 from Muscle Shoals in northwest Alabama to Interstate 65 in Cullman. He said the project has stopped and started over the last three decades several times “at the discretion of the transportation director.”
There would be no requirements for the board members, but those involved in the road building industry would not be allowed to serve, Ward said.
ALDOT Spokesman Tony Harris admits the recent history of the department’s leadership has been shaky, with two former directors having been indicted over ethical issues, but he said times have changed under Riley’s watch.
“I think this is the most ethical government in Alabama history because of the people he put into the cabinet,” Harris said. “Under Gov. Bob Riley, we have restored a very clear vision.”
He added that the DOT will not take an official stance on the proposal and only involves itself in legislation that could affect its funding.
Billy Norrell, executive director of the Alabama Road Builders Association (ARBA), said his membership is monitoring the legislation, but, “most of the guys believe the department runs very well just as it is.”
One of the biggest concerns Norrell said is circling around the industry is seeing who would be appointed to the board.
“The thing that’s most concerning is that if you get a road commissioner in there, how do you get them out?” he said.
Under Ward’s proposal, the governor would appoint the commissioners to staggered six-year terms.
Following ARBA’s lead, the Alabama Associated General Contractors (AGC) has not taken a stance on the legislation.
But what President Henry Hagood wants to ensure is that “the politics is taken out of it.”
He said the AGC’s membership supports the concept of good solid decisions made for the right reasons, but “some people just don’t trust the politicians to let that happen.”
According to an Associated Press survey of legislators in January, only 34 percent of senators responding said they support the proposal, making its passage seem unlikely.
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.
Ward said transportation commissions in other states have “worked marvelously,” citing Arkansas and North Carolina as good examples.
In North Carolina, the commission is made up of 19 members — the largest in the country, according to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.
An NCDOT spokesman said the board consists of a member from each of the state’s 14 districts and five members representing ports, rural roads, environmental issues, mass transit and financial and accounting issues.
Members from the odd numbered divisions and three of the at-large commissioners serve four-year terms. Those remaining serve a two-year term and then four year terms if reappointed by the governor.
NCDOT adopted its current structure in 2001.
Mississippi has the smallest board with three members. Of the 28 states that have boards, the most popular board size is seven members.
Twenty-two states, including Alabama, as well as the District of Columbia do not have transportation boards.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. CEG