Less not more politics in the roads business a key priority.

By: - May 2, 2008 5:40 pm

Some of the rhetoric and information coming out of DOT has been encouraging regarding the reform process within that dysfunctional organization. DOT personnel and people from organizations that interact with DOT have expressed a range of views on the process, from "it is all smoke and mirrors" to ones of guarded hope and occasional optimism. Certainly based on the conversations I have had with DOT contractors and on the evidence of the much publicized fiascos of recent times, there is much to be fixed. But in general, there is an expectation that the post-McKinsey report reform process is, to quote a colleague of mine, "a high-minded attempt" to get it right.

It goes without saying that we here at the Budget and Tax Center want a DOT that is professional, reliable and efficient because absent that there is no hope of removing political meddling in decisions over what construction and maintenance projects are done and in what order they are completed. We want a DOT that has the capacity and is trusted by the public to decide as far as possible the construction and maintenance priorities of the state based on objective needs criteria, and to meet those needs in a timely way.

This is not to say that critical infrastructure projects will not be politicized or be the subject to public debate and scrutiny. It is right that they are. But at present, pork barrel politics permeates road-related expenditure decisions and priorities and has caused and will continue to cause a massive misallocation of money.

As the cost of building and maintaining roads spirals and resources and money becomes relatively scarce, the political scramble over that road pork barrel will intensify. In the context of a weak DOT, that is a very bad trend for taxpayers and voters.

It is therefore depressing to note, but not altogether surprising, that the most significant recommendation to come out of the Prioritization and Best Practices sub-committee of the 21st Century Transportation Committee – a sub-committee chaired by Transportation Appropriations Chair, Senator Clark Jenkins (D) – is to stengthen and centralize political control over DOT.

The back-to-the-future organizational recommendations have three major components. First, nothing changes in the composition of the Board of Transportation save the second component – the Secretary of DOT is to become the Chairman (sic) of the Board of Transportation. Third, the State Highway Administrator becomes the Chief Executive of DOT.

In justifying these changes, the sub-committee report argues that:

Additional laws or revised ethics policies cannot improve upon the various changes and reorganizations [of the Board of Transportation]"

Instead the role of the Board is to be significantly expanded:

It is recommended that the roles and responsibilities of the board be adjusted…to include increased oversight in the scheduling, delivery and costs of Transportation Projects and Programs…The Board of Transportation should increase their oversight responsibilities in the area of long term transportation needs and financing options, transportation policies, transportation program delivery, and coordination and cooperation with Municipal Planning organizations, and local governments."

Now increased oversight by the Board of these important aspects of policy would be a very good thing if the Board were constituted entirely differently. But as NC Policywatch and News and Observer journalists have observed, the Board is as pure an example of political cronyism and cash-buying-influence as we have in this state. Add in the new responsibilities and powers plus a weak DOT and the situation gets worse not better. It is a recipe for the continued waste of taxpayer money on needless pork barrel projects.

What is needed is a Board of professionals appointed for their transportation expertise, not fund-raising abilities. The structure of the Board, currently dominated by geographically-based representatives, needs to change such that all members are "at large". The temptation for Board members to favor their own district's projects needs to be minimized. Finally, a fundamental priority of the Board should be to increase DOT capacity to make good project decisions so that the Board can politically remove itself from all but the most major of infrastructure decisions.

On May 13th, the 21st Century Transportation Committee has the opportunity to vote on the Prioritization sub-committee's recommendations and decide whether to submit them to the legislature for action in the short session. They need to do the right thing and vote the proposals down or refer them back to the Prioritization sub-committee for further consideration. What is needed is less politics in the roads business, not more.  

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