It’s likely not to be particularly noticed, but the most revolutionary change Republicans will have wrought under the Gold Dome is on the verge of becoming law. It’s the shift of power from the Department of Transportation to elected officials. If successful, it is truly the end of an era that was in its heyday under the legendary highway czar Jim Gillis, a former Treutlen County commissioner who served in both houses of the General Assembly and who reigned from 1948 to 1955 and again from 1959 to 1970 as state highway commissioner.
The era when legislators and county commissioners came hat-in-hand to the State Highway Department for roads was preceded by an era in which a winning governor’s political supporters filled patronage ranks. That practice was effectively ended by creation of the state merit system under Georgia’s best reform governor, Ellis Arnall, in office between 1943 and 1947.
The point here is that the politicians and the road-masters have never quite found the balance. Under Senate Bill 200, as amended Friday by the House Transportation Committee, the politicians are intriguingly close to getting it right.
The state’s best interest is a statewide transportation plan that does not invite regionalism nor “my money-your money” parochialism. A statewide transportation plan should be professional and data-driven. In that sense, politics absolutely has to be pushed out. There is, however, a role for politics. Veteran legislator Mickey Channell noted Friday that every voter thinks that legislators decide which roads get built. The best that most of them can do, he said, is to get them put on the “long-range” projects list. “If you don’t know what that means,” he said, “it means ‘never.’”
Over the years, my views have changed on the role of legislators in bringing home the bacon, whether it’s cash grants for local projects or for asphalt. I’ve given up trying to take politics out of politics — and now am satisfied merely to bring it in the open. Give me open and honest government, with transparency in everything politicians and bureaucrats do, and I will not try to box them in unreasonably on campaign finance, on pork or on which roads get built or paved when.
The greater problem for me is that government is growing more remote, isolated into nonaccountable authorities or other structures that put decision-makers beyond the reach of voters. Regional commissions, for example, should never have dedicated sources of revenue that give them public money without having to face the voters.
Too, we’ve seen with the State Road and Tollway Authority that the state has collected $32 million to cover a $26.6 million debt on Ga. 400, but will continue to collect 50-cent tolls at least through 2011, when the bonds are paid off. The extra money goes to pay for the authority and to plan more toll roads.
Georgians are about to be asked to commit vast new sums to transportation, either as direct taxes or as tolls. The absolute, threshold question before committing a penny of new money is whether the planners and the politicians can be trusted to make the right choices based on what’s best for all of Georgia.
Trust. First, last and always, it’s trust. Keeping that toll on Ga. 400 beyond the implied contract with users is the kind of decision that undermines it.
The proposed reorganization of DOT maintains the legislator-elected DOT board. It adds a director of planning, appointed by the governor, who is responsible for devising a statewide transportation plan by Feb. 15, 2010.
Legislators will control which projects get funded and will, furthermore, have a separate pot of money that could be spent on local projects.
A complete data-supported, cost-benefit system would mean that some projects essential to communities across Georgia would not get built. You should be able to go to elected officials and get results when projects have merit. Politics, with transparency, is a frustration-relief valve.
Change the system. Give politicians the final say — or otherwise they’re controlled by unelected officials parceling out favors.
But set real standards and keep everything in the open.