Road Worrier

Road Worrier: He's not 'The General,' but he's the boss at DOT

McCrory’s intro strikes strange chord, shows how little he knows Tata

bsiceloff@newsobserver.comJanuary 7, 2013 

Gov. Pat McCrory issued brief marching orders last week to a new transportation secretary whose name he had not yet learned to pronounce.

His most specific new directive for Tony Tata was a small one: to work with Susan Kluttz, the new cultural resources secretary, “on integrating art in future transportation projects, especially our bridges throughout North Carolina.”

What else can we expect for transportation – besides bridges that are nicer to look at – during the McCrory-Tata administration? It’s early yet, but there are a few clues.

The new Republican governor, who took office Saturday, gave jobs to men and women he had known for years during his political and business career in Charlotte. He clearly was not well-acquainted with Tata, a former Army general who had been fired in September after 20 months as Wake County school superintendent.

McCrory introduced him at a news conference as “a person who’s known here as ‘The General.’ ” But Tata left the military in 2009. He’s not one of the starched-shirt types you meet in public life who puff themselves up with outdated honorifics such as “Judge” or “Colonel.” Tata is not known as The General.

And his name isn’t “TATT-uh,” as McCrory repeatedly called him. After two years of TV and radio news saturation, thousands of Triangle dwellers know that Tony calls himself “TAY-tuh.”

McCrory realized his error when he heard a reporter address Tata.

“I probably butchered your name,” McCrory told him. “I apologize.”

Tata shrugged it off. He told his new boss, “Sometimes it’s hard to get that long A.”

Most of McCrory’s directives to his new department heads amounted to good-government principles: improved efficiency, more long-range planning, better maintenance.

“We have issues not only building roads and infrastructure, but how do we maintain the roads and bridges and rail,” McCrory said. “I want to make sure we have a long-term structural and financial plan to do that with regard to the maintenance.”

The legislature has beefed up spending for road and bridge maintenance – partly by cutting DOT funds for bus and rail transit. Triangle counties will be looking for state funds as they develop plans for light rail and commuter trains.

McCrory helped launch Charlotte’s rail transit line when he served as its mayor, and he won state funding to cover 25 percent of the construction cost. Asked if, as governor, he will give the Triangle the same deal, McCrory answered with a qualified yes.

“If they meet the same criteria that I asked for when I was mayor of Charlotte, regarding federal (matching funds), and also if they meet the ridership potential and do the right land use, I will be working with my secretary to support those types of efforts,” McCrory said, with a nod toward Tata.

Tata spoke only briefly and said he had a lot of work to do. He said he would “develop a bipartisan commission to design a 25-year vision that, among other things, will help us focus resources on the most important projects.” He takes charge of 13,400 workers and a $5.4 billion budget at DOT.

Tata stands to benefit from governance changes ordered four years ago by former Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue, and written into law by the Republican-led legislature.

Perdue came into office embarrassed by the clumsy ethical transgressions of Democratic fundraisers who had been rewarded with seats on the Board of Transportation. She took away most of the board’s political power and gave it to her transportation secretary.

No longer would board members decide – often in secret – which roads get built, and which builders get the contracts. These decisions are now made by the transportation secretary, and are supposed to be based on transparent, objective criteria and local government recommendations.

When Tata was Wake school superintendent, he was caught up in partisan rancor that divided the school board between the Republicans who hired him and the Democrats who later fired him. A McCrory spokesman said the school board’s decision to fire Tata was “political.”

But at DOT, Tata can expect a more harmonious and submissive board. Its members will be his policy advisers – not his political bosses.

Julie White, who lobbies for urban transportation needs, sees Tata as a good fit for the new job.

“Tata comes from a military background and is very much about leadership, efficiency and data-driven decisions,” said White, executive director of the N.C. Metropolitan Coalition, which represents big-town mayors. “It continues (McCrory’s) vision for transportation and keeping us globally competitive.”

The appointment puts a retired one-star Army general in charge of an agency where the No. 2 man also comes from a military background: Jim Trogdon, an active-duty two-star general in the N.C. National Guard.

Both men have served tours in Afghanistan, and their records have other experiences in common, including a focus on fighting improvised roadside bombs.

Tata is registered as an unaffiliated voter. Trogdon, a Democrat, is admired by Republican legislators who – unlike his DOT co-workers – love to call Trogdon “The General.”

Now we’ll have two generals.

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