RALEIGH — They are loath to praise her by name, but Republican legislators really do like what Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue has done with the state Department of Transportation.
So they are enshrining in state law a number of Perdue changes that have been credited with making DOT more open and less political.
Public trust in DOT had ebbed when Perdue took office three years ago after ethical abuses by Democratic transportation board members. Two had been forced to resign – one after influencing road-improvement decisions that benefited his family’s business interests, another after mingling his DOT duties with his role as a Perdue campaign fundraiser.
Perdue issued an executive order in early 2009 that beefed up ethics standards for board members and stripped away their authority to award contracts and make spending decisions. These powers were shifted to the DOT secretary, who is appointed by the governor.
Perdue decreed that DOT would start using clear, objective criteria for deciding how road money should be spent and which projects would be built first, and that local leaders would get a new say in the process.
Her executive order made changes that easily could be reversed by the next governor. Three bills that have sailed through two committees without dissent in the past week would make that less likely, by turning Perdue’s changes into law. The measures are expected to pass both chambers easily.
Two Republican senators echoed Perdue’s statements from 2009 Wednesday, but they balked at referring directly to her role in the DOT reforms.
“I think they’re great ideas,” said Sen. Bill Rabon of Southport, the transportation co-chairman, after his committee approved the changes. “What we’re trying to do is get the politics out of transportation.”
Sen. Kathy Harrington of Gastonia, vice chairman of the transportation committee, also focused her comments on the ideas – and not their origins.
“I support a transparent, data-driven process,” Harrington said. “I think DOT should be allowed to prioritize projects based on their criteria.”
Joe Bryan of Knightdale, a Republican Wake County commissioner who served last year as president of the N.C. Association of County Commissioners, has been less restrained in the past three years about praising Perdue for her DOT reforms, and DOT officials for building new relationships with local leaders.
“It does appear to me that with the current administration, DOT has gone to a realistic, transparent, data-driven process to make the limited resources go as far as possible, and to see local governments as true partners,” Bryan said Wednesday.
Jim Trogdon, DOT’s chief operating officer, said Perdue directed DOT leaders in 2009 to restore trust in the agency, use public money more efficiently, and involve local communities in developing a vision for the state’s approach to transportation.
“And it was clear this should not be a DOT plan, but it should be a state of North Carolina plan,” Trogdon said. “In the end, we have a system that takes the back-room negotiations out and says here’s a system where everyone is treated fairly, and projects are evaluated objectively.”
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