Sunday, December 26, 2010

Sonny Perdue: A still murky legacy on transportation

It's legacy time for Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, who leaves office next month.

I did a piece for The Telegraph examining his 8 years in office and another looking to the future and asking whether the governor enriched himself while in office. The Telegraph's Joe Kovac did a more personal piece, about the governor's last days in office, and going home to Bonaire.

Oddly, I left the best quote I gathered, over more than two weeks reporting, completely out of both stories:
"What we've seen for 8 years is a failure to move this state forward on the crucial issues of water and transportation. Eight years of nothing to break up the gridlock in metro Atlanta with mass transit. ... The state has borrowed billions of dollars and wasted it on four lanes to nowhere, in case you haven't driven through south Georgia lately. I mean, I can get to Albany real fast now, but who cares? ... I don't go for this argument that there was no money. What money there was (for transportation) was wasted."

- Mark Woodall, chapter chairman, Georgia Sierra Club
I think that's directionally fair. I left it out because I cut the entire section on transportation and the environment for space, and because of the nuance I'm going get into here.

To be sure, Sonny Perdue was governor the last 8 years, and traffic's as bad in metro Atlanta now as it was when he started, if not worse. And there are certainly four lane roads in middle and south Georgia that seem out of place.

But as Perdue himself noted when I asked him about Woodall's line, GRIP, a program that focuses on connecting Georgia cities with major roads through Georgia's rural expanse, began in 1989.

Some people — certainly more than Mr. Woodall — see Perdue's Fast Forward program as a major culprit in the DOT's cash flow problem and subsequent political melt down the last two years.

But Perdue said more than half that spending was for metro Atlanta. And responsibility at the DOT is a wonderfully murky thing, with politically charged bureaucrats, engineers, a controlling board elected by secret vote among district legislators, all having various influence.

Like most governor's, Perdue's had his public fights with the DOT's controlling board. He noted they do not always do what a governor wants.

"I think Mark Woodall is absolutely wrong," Perdue said.

To me, transportation is probably the most interesting issue within Perdue's legacy. With the exception of education, transportation probably has the greatest effect on a state's future, and the benefits of one strategy over another often take time to reveal themselves.

Most of the transportation debate during Perdue's second term didn't center on specific projects, but on the need for more money, and who would control it. In the end, Perdue got a planning director position in place that will give future governor's more power to decide what gets built. And areas across the state will vote next year on whether to charge a new penny tax for transportation projects.

But Perdue didn't make mass transit a priority at all. Atlanta continues to have traffic issues due to its recent explosive growth. Truck routes through rural Georgia, though, are at their all-time best. And, though I think widening Ga. 300 to Albany was decided before Perdue took office, you can in fact get to Albany real fast these days.

I guess the question is, do you care?

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