Retired DOT Engineer: Alabama Roads Paved With Politics

Wed June 22, 2005 - Southeast Edition

MONTGOMERY, AL (AP) If you think politics paves the way in deciding where roads will be built in Alabama, you’re right, said the man who helped lay down the state’s road map over the past five decades.

“Every public road is a political road,” said Alabama Department of Transportation Chief Engineer Ray Bass.

Bass, who retired May 31, may have had more to do with planning and paving highways all over Alabama than anyone else.

He first went to work for the highway department in 1957 on a survey crew building a section of Interstate 85 near Auburn, one of the first stretches of interstate highway to open in Alabama. Later he served 12 years as state highway director in the 1970s and 1980s, during three of the four terms of the state’s most dominant politician, former Gov. George Wallace.

While need plays a role in road decisions, Bass said it’s no secret they also are often based on whether local politicians have supported the administration in power at the time.

“It’s not a myth. Caesar had the same problem. It’s always been a fact that road decisions tend to favor areas where the support came from,” Bass said.

State Rep. Nelson Starkey, D-Florence, a veteran lawmaker who served for a number of years as chairman of the Legislature’s joint transportation committee, agreed that politics has played a role in road building decisions. But Starkey said Bass had a knack of locating roads where they were most needed, while making politicians think it was their decision.

“He would usually find a way of steering a politician, so that the road or bridge would be built where it ought to have been built in the first place,” Starkey said.

Sitting in his office in front of four large Alabama maps and wearing colorful suspenders with a matching tie, Bass spoke about the building of Alabama’s more than 900 mi. of interstate highways, his relationship with Wallace — and about the long-running racial discrimination lawsuit against DOT that has cost the state tens of millions of dollars.

The lawsuit, known as the Reynolds suit, claimed that for years the DOT discriminated against blacks in hiring and promotions.

While some critics have said Bass’s “good old boy” style created an atmosphere that led to the lawsuit, Bass said there was probably more he could have done, but doesn’t agree when he hears criticism that blacks would drive by the DOT offices and not stop because they knew there was no way they would get a job.

“That is not true. A lot of blacks worked at the highway department long before Reynolds. But we could have always done better. That was a very expensive lesson we went through,” Bass said.

DOT Director Joe McInnes said Bass has been an eyewitness to the expansion of Alabama’s roads and bridges over the last half of a century.

“He’s been here during the most exciting times in highway construction in Alabama,” McInnes said.

Bass spoke proudly of Alabama’s network of highway rest areas, which he said may be where many travelers receive their first and possibly only impression of Alabama.

While politics played a part in deciding where roads were located, he said the decision on where to place rest areas was based mostly on the capacity of his kidneys. He said that when he had to decide where to put a rest area, he would drink a large amount of liquids, get in his car and start driving.

“When I got to where I had to stop. I would put up a stake and say ’build the rest area here,’” Bass said.

He described Wallace as “a close friend.” He said he never had any trouble understanding Wallace’s priorities.

“If there was something he was interested in, he wouldn’t call me on the phone. He would come see me personally,” Bass said.

Several years ago, Bass called some news reporters to complain that he was concerned that plaques with Wallace’s name on them were going to be covered up at rest areas.

“It was important to me,” Bass said. “He was governor when most of those were built and he loved those plaques. If he went into a rest area and didn’t see a plaque, he would get his security to call me.”

He laughs when talking about his efforts in the 1980s to get old fashioned highway engineers to use computers when designing roads and bridges.

“At that time I had to force people to use computers. They didn’t want to get away from their drafting equipment. After a few months they were asking me for more computers,” Bass said.

One unpleasant development for Bass has been the cost of building roads.

“When I started I had no idea it was going to be as expensive as it is now. In those days you could build a whole section of interstate for a million dollars,” he said, adding that one small bridge costs more than that today.

Asked why he decided to retire, Bass borrowed a popular line from former Alabama football coach Bear Bryant.

“Mama called,” Bass said, referring to his wife, Clara “Snookie” Bass.