Conti: Politics, yes; favoritism, no

Politics still plays a role in state road-building decisions — but only in a good way, Transportation Secretary Gene Conti said today.

“What we’re trying to do is take favoritism or special preference out of the decision-making process,” Conti told reporters. “We’re still going to have a political process, because we’re going to reflect the views of people all over the state.”

Conti spoke a day after Gov. Beverly Perdue announced details of her plan (see blog post with comments) to remove the Board of Transportation — whose members are appointed to represent different parts of the state — away from its old job of deciding which roads are built, where and when.

She was following through on a reform pledge made during her campaign last year, after two of her political backers were forced to resign from the transportation board.

Thomas Betts of Rocky Mount had pressured a Roanoke Rapids city official to raise money for Perdue’s campaign. Louis W. Sewell Jr. of Jacksonville had steered DOT money to road projects near commercial property he or his son owned.

Conti outlined Perdue’s new rules at a meeting of the 18-member board.

Engineers and other DOT professionals will decide on transportation improvements according to priorities laid out in 20-year and 10-year plans that balance needs with resources, and a five-year work schedule. He said DOT spending will be based on objective evidence rather than on political clout.

“So it’s not just because So-and-So wants this project in the plan. It’s what is the traffic forecast, and what are the safety issues. It’s done in a public process, not by somebody sneaking it into the plan somewhere along the way,” Conti said.

Instead of voting on each project, as in the past, the board will set policy and evaluate DOT performance in new quarterly and annual reviews.

Three board members — appointed by Perdue’s predecessor, Mike Easley — said that they liked the new governor’s plan.

“It’s helpful for everyone, and I don’t see any down side in a system that has professionals make the decisions based on objective data,” said board member Marvin Blount III of Washington, N.C.

Kenneth Spaulding of Durham, who represents the seven counties in DOT’s Division Five, said board members won’t stop serving as advocates for local communities.

“And I think it’s very healthy, because all the decisions can’t be made out of Raleigh,” he said. “Local input is still important.”

Cameron W. McRae of Kinston said Perdue is building on the board’s efforts to chart DOT’s long-term financial needs and launch a reorganization aimed at making the agency efficient and accountable. He said North Carolinians have a mistaken notion that road plans are hatched in back-room deals.

“Actually it’s a long, arduous process,” McRae said. “Some people perceive that board members just decree and say exactly where a road is going to be built.”

Conti said Perdue will reappoint board members, or name new ones, who are comfortable with the new role.

“A lot of people around the state thought [in the past] that if you got on the board of transportation, that meant you could deliver projects to your area,” Conti said.

“And we’re changing that.”