Transportation politics was all the buzz at Thursday night’s annual meeting of the Civic League for Regional Atlanta.
The news that the board of the Georgia Department of Transportation had fired Commissioner Gena Evans had come out only a couple of hours before the dinner at the Twelve hotel in Atlantic Station.
First person I talked to was Sam Olens, chairman of the Atlanta Regional Commission and chairman of the Cobb County Commission.
“The working relationship between the Atlanta Regional Commission, the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, GDOT and MARTA was significantly improved under her (Evan’s) leadership,” Olens said. “And the steps she took to expose the fundamental problems and try to solve them is much appreciated.”
Olens expressed concern for what could happen next.
“It would be a real shame if GDOT does not continue to make the necessary financial and project delivery improvements that were started under her watch,” Olens said.
Standing nearby was Tad Leithead, an executive with Cousins Properties who has been a leader on ARC’s board on transportation issues and policy.
So what were his thoughts about the ouster of Gena Evans?
“It certainly increases the chaos and creates further instability,” Leithead said. “It just raises another question in an already chaotic environment.”
For planner Harry West, who served as director of the Atlanta Regional Commission for decades, it was just another example of history repeating itself.
“Some day we’ll get to the point where we fix our agencies that have problems instead of creating new ones for more expense and bureaucracy,” West said. “And that’s what I said when they created GRTA.”
(I can vouch for that. At the time, West argued that it would be better to fix ARC or GDOT or both than create a new authority).
Then after most had gotten their dinner and were sitting at the table, DeKalb architect Robert Brown came in the ballroom. Brown, who serves on GDOT’s board, was the one person in the room who knew what had really happened a few hours earlier.
“The next 90 days will be critical as it relates to the economic prosperity of our state and transportation,” said Brown, a longtime civic player in the region.
The GDOT board had been in executive session for three hours when it fired Commissioner Evans, someone who has had a controversial tenure from day one.
“Based upon what I saw, eight members voted to terminate the commissioner, two voted no, and there was one abstention. And that was me,” Brown said.
Evans had been a change agent at GDOT, Brown said, and that had ruffled some feathers.
When I asked Brown about the politics between Gov. Sonny Perdue, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, House Speaker Glenn Richardson and the GDOT board, he said: “We are supposed to be working as a team.”
The board named Gerald Ross, the chief engineer at GDOT, as the interim commissioner. That appointment is for six months, which means that the governor and/or members of the legislature won’t be able to put in their own choice for commissioner.
GDOT’s board decided to conduct a national search to “find the best possible leader in transportation” to be the next commissioner, Brown said.
“We’ve got to get through these next few months,” Brown said. “I’m hopeful that we will be able to regroup and look at the big picture and understand that we are at a critical point with the stimulus plan.”
Of course, it’s not yet known how the politics will play out at the state capitol.
The governor, Cagle and Richardson are supposedly still trying to push their plan to reorganize the state’s transportation agencies and minimize GDOT’s role. The Senate is proposing a regional sales tax solution for new transportation funding. And the House is pushing a statewide sales tax.
The inter-relationships between all the entities and intramural politics between the elected officials are hard to decipher. As one person observed, it’s as though everyone is holding a gun to someone else’s head.
In the end, the loser in this Russian roulette will be us.