Durham Independent, June 29, 2005

Some white (hard) hats emerging at DOT

By Burtman

The N.C. Department of Transportation has long symbolized what's wrong with
state government. The agency has spent billions of dollars over the decades
with few controls and little accountability, its budget viewed by
legislators as a giant slush fund to further their political agendas. Its
divisions have historically been headed by bureaucratic deadwood determined
to maintain the status quo at any cost. Its powerful board has been a
repository for political patronage, its members disdainful of citizen input
unless it comes from their highway industry buddies. A culture of racism has
permeated the agency, as evidenced by numerous discrimination lawsuits. A
relic of a bygone era, DOT has practically defined the term institutional
arrogance.

Public perceptions of DOT have not changed a lot in recent years. After
Durham activists successfully derailed the misguided Eno Drive plan, a
classic DOT steamroller concept, they're now furious that the alternative
East End Connector is not one of the projects in the department's recently
unveiled draft Transportation Improvement Program (TIP), which runs through
2012. "Is DOT nursing a grudge because Durham citizens successfully lobbied
against their pet Eno Drive project?" wrote a local citizen in a letter to
The Herald-Sun. "Because of its past actions, the DOT has very little
credibility with the citizens of Durham," wrote another.

Illustration By V.C. Rogers
The decision to further delay Chapel Hill's Columbia Street project has
tongues wagging in similar fashion. The subject of an intense dispute
between the town and UNC, the project languished despite a 1998 agreement on
the design after university officials decided they wanted more lanes. The
two parties reached consensus in 2003 to keep the original design in
exchange for town approval of UNC's coveted chiller plant, though some
university officials remain less than enthusiastic about the compromise.
That should have resolved the matter, however, and town planners expected
the project--Chapel Hill's number one transportation priority--to be funded
for completion in 2007. Instead, DOT pushed the date back to 2009, giving
new life to old conspiracy theories. "Our suspicion is that some UNC booster
in Raleigh is doing [UNC] a favor by going around the system and yanking the
project," says a town official.

The excuse DOT has offered for the delays is simple: The money just isn't
there to move more quickly. In December, DOT revealed that projections
showed the system running out of cash this fall, requiring a major rollback
in the TIP project list and timetable. This surprised observers, who noted
that just three years ago DOT carried a bank balance in excess of $900
million.

But the shortfall is real, and the reasons are more a reflection of positive
changes DOT has made than any fiscal mismanagement or political
machinations. In 2002, the legislature passed the Cash Allocation Management
Act, which allowed DOT to draw down its cash balance with low-impact
projects such as preservation and maintenance, signalization and public
transportation rather than new roads. More importantly, DOT has been
developing and enhancing an environmental stewardship policy the past five
years that has led to a radical transformation of its road building
practices and expedited numerous projects for the better.

Under the old DOT, engineers followed their asphalt muse, ignoring
environmental and other inconvenient considerations, plowing ahead with new
road projects--until they hit brick walls, often in the form of clean water
and other federal regulations. This created huge bottlenecks, as mitigating
environmental damage from new roads takes years, not weeks. Stalled projects
meant wads of cash accumulating in the bank, as the money had been allocated
for the projects but couldn't be spent until the problems were resolved.

Today, the environmental component is built into the planning process and
integrated throughout the design and construction phases. DOT helped birth
the Ecosystem Enhancement Program, an unprecedented collaboration between
traditional foes DOT, the state Department of Environment and Natural
Resources, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that is the first of its
kind in the nation. In 2003, DOT established the Office of Environmental
Quality, which coordinates and oversees green programs department-wide. The
chartering of 20 Rural Planning Organizations to mirror the state's urban
transportation planning structure has given rural residents a level of
access to the process they have not previously enjoyed, with consequent
environmental benefits. These and other initiatives have garnered DOT more
than 20 national awards from the Federal Highway Administration and other
transportation agencies.

In addition to preserving thousands of acres of wetlands and other sensitive
habitat, DOT's new philosophy has satisfied business interests by clearing
out the bottlenecks and streamlining the permitting process. But as a result
of that and construction costs that have escalated well beyond the rate of
inflation, the gas tank is now close to empty.

Just why it took so long to figure out that money was scarce is a matter of
debate, but a historic lack of accounting oversight contributed to the
problem--like rich folks who don't need to worry about their day-to-day
account balances, DOT just wrote checks. With far more projects on the
state's needs list than can be accommodated, scaling back the TIP (which had
never been grounded in reality anyway) was the only prudent option. The
Columbia Street improvements and East End Connector will happen, promises
DOT spokeswoman Ashley Memory, if not as quickly as many would prefer. "Our
commitment to building these projects has never wavered," Memory says. Like
the wetlands that the programs are designed to protect, however, the
institutional changes at DOT are fragile. The Huns who once controlled DOT
are unhappy with the new priorities and have expressed their wish to return
to the good old days when politics, not policy, ruled the road-building
roost. Despite the national recognition and demonstrated success of the
environmental stewardship programs, or perhaps because of them, the old
guard is fighting back. Sen. Clark Jenkins of Tarboro, a former DOT board
member who sees environmental concerns as an obstruction to progress,
slipped a provision into the Senate budget in May that would have eliminated
the job of Deputy Secretary Roger Sheats, a key architect of the
environmental programs.

Jenkins said that Sheats had upset communities by needlessly delaying
transportation projects. The laughable irony of this comment
notwithstanding, Jenkins was probably correct on one account: Sheats was
part of a group that recommended replacing the Bonner Bridge in Dare County,
which connects the Outer Banks to the mainland, with a longer span that
would protect the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. That plan drew the
ire of Senate President and Dare resident Marc Basnight, who wanted a bridge
that paralleled the old one. Basnight ultimately got his way, even though
parts of the roadway at the Outer Banks terminus may ultimately end up under
water, and the plan faces numerous environmental hurdles (and a possible
lawsuit) that engineers have yet to overcome.

Whether Jenkins was carrying Basnight's water or simply displaying
antagonism to his personal environmental bogeymen is not clear (Jenkins was
out of town and unavailable for comment). But the attempt to purge Sheats
failed, as DOT Secretary Lyndo Tippett navigated that minefield by
reorganizing the department in advance of final budget passage. Sheats had
one of his functions transferred to another division, and the upshot of that
move remains to be seen. On the other hand, Tippett issued an atypically
strong statement that "We've made great advances, and to lessen our
commitment to environmental stewardship is not the direction in which I want
to go." Memory says the department has no intention of rolling back the
clock: "Roger worked very hard with the secretary to build the culture of
environmental stewardship," she says. "This will continue."

Survival is a powerful motivator, however, and those who stand to lose the
most from permanent cultural changes at DOT are likely to fight till they
drop. That includes many of the lifers who still manage little fiefdoms
within the department, as well as some higher-ups. One of those, Deputy
Secretary Dan DeVane, symbolizes the holdover element as well as anyone: One
of his primary functions is legislative bagman, cutting deals with power
brokers in the General Assembly to keep them happy.

Major obstacles remain before the changes at DOT can become
institutionalized. Foremost among these is overhauling the Byzantine funding
formula and district system that consolidates power in the hands of a few.
Developed in the 1950s, the outmoded system has resulted in resources being
disproportionately funneled to a few low-population areas of the state. Not
coincidentally, one of those is Basnight's district: Since 1990, Dare and
other coastal counties Basnight represents have consistently ranked in the
top 10 in per capita spending, while congested urban areas have ranked in
the bottom half despite major traffic problems; Cumberland County, which
includes the Charlotte metro area, ranks 98 out of 100 counties.

Any adjustments in the formula will have to come from the General Assembly,
and that's not likely to happen any time soon. Meanwhile, the battle for the
heart and soul of DOT will rage on, probably for years. Those who criticize
DOT for not moving fast enough on particular projects would do well to take
note of the bigger picture and support the agency where and when it most
matters.