Road Worrier: Tata does some surfing before wading into DMV

bsiceloff@newsobserver.comJanuary 15, 2013 

After his last job ended badly, Tony Tata went surfing.

“Kinda got away, thought about life, what I wanted to do,” Tata said Friday as he ended his first week in a new job as North Carolina’s transportation secretary.

Tata, 53, grew up in Virginia Beach. He spent summer days cruising North Carolina’s Outer Banks. He rode the waves at a sweet spot near Rodanthe that surfers know as the S-Turns.

But when he was fired Sept. 25 after 20 months as Wake County school superintendent, Tata needed to get farther away than the North Carolina coast. He took his surfboard south for a week at Encuentro Beach, on the northern coast of the Dominican Republic.

“There’s nothing like being out by yourself, … out in the ocean, and just thinking about where you’ve been and where you’re going. The solitude out there was good for me, to reflect on things.”

Tata retired as a brigadier general after 28 years in the Army. The Wake job was his second as a school administrator. When he was invited in early December to talk with Pat McCrory, the newly elected governor, “I really thought I was talking about an education role.”

But McCrory’s people had looked at his military résumé. “And what you see is a lot of operational deployments with infrastructure build that I was in charge of.”

In civilian lingo: transportation.

Given the partisan turbulence that raged around his local school career, Tata can count on continued extremes of high and low regard from the North Carolinians he is again employed to serve. His haters and lovers didn’t wait for him to start work at the Department of Transportation before they rehearsed their hot arguments about his fitness for the job.

Whether he ultimately improves on the record of his well-regarded predecessor, Gene Conti – or whether he wrecks DOT – it’s hard to argue with the relevance of that résumé.

Tony Tata has done transportation on a big scale, on several continents – and amid distractions that make all those school-board squabbles look as silly as they often were.

He was the 82nd Airborne Division’s planning chief for the 1994 invasion of Haiti, arranging for ports and airfields and helicopters and hundreds of airplanes, including the one he jumped out of.

Roads and revitalization

“And then in Kosovo, while at night you were fighting a Muslim insurgency, during the day all you were doing really was 100 percent economic development and infrastructure development. We built roads. We revitalized the economy. We got a ski resort going again to help bring jobs to that area,” Tata said.

In Afghanistan, he was responsible for the Army’s airplanes and airfields, and for thousands of containers moving in and out through Pakistan every day. “And where do they go, what are they carrying, … and how are you making sure that what you put on the truck actually is still there once it gets to the receiving end?”

McCrory mentioned some of this in late December when he announced Tata as his pick for DOT. McCrory included DOT in his general commitment to improve “customer service” for the state’s citizenry, and to marry infrastructure improvement with job creation.

And in that joking sort of way in which he expresses himself sometimes, McCrory bluntly directed Tata to “fix DMV.” Then he tilted his head and grinned, evoking a few chuckles in the room, and added: “In a week.”

Whether or not McCrory was joking, Tata took him seriously.

In his first week on the job, he set up a small task force chaired by the acting DMV commissioner, Eric Boyette. The group surveyed states regarded as providing good customer service through their motor vehicles agencies. Its report was due on Tata’s desk Friday.

Tata told Boyette’s group to find out what works elsewhere and might work here, to figure out what it would cost and to recommend how to make it happen.

Speaking in an interview before he had received Boyette’s report, Tata said he wants to make it easier for millions of North Carolinians to do business with DMV each year – perhaps including weekend hours, in shopping mall kiosks.

“We need to make sure we’re more nimble and flexible, that we cater more to the public we serve,” Tata said. “If our hours mirror normal business hours, then we’re making people take off from work to come do what they need to do.”

DMV initiatives

Tata said he would announce new initiatives for DMV this week, along with a new DMV commissioner to carry them out.

If he can fix DMV in a week, or even a couple of years, Tata may be ready to take on more of the monumental challenges that DOT faces across the state. Some of them are on the coast where he spent his summers as a boy.

DOT is wrestling with (yes, politicians) rising sea level, shifting shorelines and an Outer Banks highway that is regularly washed away by nor’easters and low-level hurricanes. There is plenty of disagreement over the state’s plans for addressing this with bridge and highway projects worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

At the epicenter of this epic struggle is the S-Turns at Rodanthe.

N.C. 12 was blown out at the S-Turns and closed to traffic for weeks after Hurricane Irene in 2011, and again after Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Before DOT rebuilt the dunes again last fall, you could stand on the pavement and see the ocean to your right and the sound to your left – with only a bit of sand and asphalt in between.

And the S-Turns is still great for surfing.

“The way the sand bar is, you get a nice right-hand break,” Tata said. “That used to be a secret surf spot, but now you’ll see cars parked all along there.”

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