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Transportation Commission Acts as Travelers’ Watchdog

Wed February 15, 2006 - Southeast Edition
Jerry Marks



By Jerry Marks

SPECIAL TO CEG

Because transportation affects all walks of life, it only makes sense that all walks of life have the opportunity to have an active voice in Florida’s transportation policy.

This year marks the 19th anniversary of when the state legislature created the Florida Transportation Commission, a citizen’s oversight board of the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT).

Implementing the same geographic districts that FDOT uses in its everyday operation, one citizen (who becomes a commissioner) represents each of the seven regions of the state at the monthly Florida Transportation Commission (FTC) meetings. Two at-large commissioners provide expertise in the areas of rail and ports.

Though it is not mandatory to have a transportation background to serve as a commissioner, it is useful, said FTC Executive Director Laura Kelley.

“It’s very helpful if they do have a background in transportation and some knowledge of transportation systems,” she said. “The commissioners bring a lot of business expertise and insight into their oversight roles in their review of policy, etc. So it’s very helpful that they have a successful business background as well.”

“I didn’t know what to expect when I first started,” admitted Janet Watermeier, an FTC commissioner since December 2001. “I had a lot to learn about transportation systems, funding and the future. Today I see the value of having a big picture policy board to work with the department of transportation, governor’s office and legislature to help shape Florida’s future. Transportation was one of those important topics that I always thought was very complex, but that I didn’t focus on before I joined the commission. It was something that somebody else worried about. Now I see what a great team of professionals Florida has running its transportation system and how respected Florida is throughout the United States for its innovative approaches. I also see the challenges of moving forward with insufficient funding to maintain our systems to the level most citizens want. I have discovered that it should be everyone’s concern because it is so important to our quality of life.”

Kelley, who leads a staff of four FTC associates in Tallahassee, said the commission evolved into a policy and performance review board in the late 1980s following a financial crisis at FDOT.

“There were some public accountability issues that needed to be resolved,” she said. “The commission was appointed and developed performance measures where the department was held accountable for all functional areas of performance and were evaluated on a quarterly and annual basis based on those performance measures.”

“Officially, the FTC is a nine-member public oversight body with four primary functions,” Watermeier explained. “To review major transportation policy initiatives; recommend major transportation policy to the governor and legislature; serve as an oversight body for the Florida Department of Transportation by assessing performance for the department and its seven districts, including the Turnpike Enterprise, on a quarterly basis and reviewing the work program; and serves as a nominating commission for the secretary of transportation when the position is vacant, providing three candidates to the governor.”

The FTC reviews FDOT’s annual work program and reports to the governor and state legislature to assure the compliance of laws and regulations.

“From a practical standpoint,” Watermeier said, “[FTC] performs studies on complex transportation issues, works with the Department of Transportation to meet Florida’s transportation goals, helps bring a regional and local perspective to transportation issues, works with the multitude of transportation partners to understand their perspective, and sorts through innovative and complex transportation issues on a statewide basis.”

If someone is interested in serving as an FTC commissioner they must reside in Florida and go through an application process. If selected, the office of the governor performs a background check where, following a successful review, the candidate is contacted by the governor’s Appointments Office. Kelley said she also is notified at that time and briefs the candidate about current FTC issues and initiatives. The commissioner-select then goes through state senate confirmation. FTC appointments are four-year terms and annual selections among the commission are held for the positions of chairman, vice chairman and secretary.

Kelley, who has worked for the FTC for three years, said the commission has had a lot to smile about recently when it has come to Florida’s transportation system.

“In the recent past some of the biggest successes would be the culmination of the Growth Management legislation, which set aside money for transportation that is being programmed now for the next five years and beyond. Two years ago, the Transportation Commission did an assessment of regional planning, which was also a focus in the most recent Growth Management bill.”

The commission and staff also were involved in the recent federal transportation funding bill’s reauthorization process.

“Actually they did quite a bit of work from a policy standpoint,” Kelley said. “They made several trips to Washington, D.C., to act as transportation advocates for Florida to increase our rate of return and work with the Florida Department of Transportation on key policy issues that we were trying to achieve on the reauthorization bill.”

The FTC enters 2006 continuing its work with the Center for Urban Transportation and Research, which is assessing the impact of the Growth Management legislation and the bill’s associated funds. The commission also will continue to look at the results of the December 2005 interim report on ways of improving the state’s transportation safety, as well as studying the impacts of commercial trucks on Florida’s Strategic Intermodal System.

Party politics don’t come into play when it comes to FTC decisions, Kelley said.

“Transportation is a global issue, it truly is not a political issue; it’s more of an economic issue in Florida,” she said. “For our economic well being, we must have a safe and secure and efficient transportation system.”

(This story originally ran in the Winter 2006 edition of Florida Transportation Builder.)