Ward bill to revamp state DOT

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, November 25, 2003

Shelby County residents who have found themselves sitting completely still on Highway 119 before 8 in the morning realize that with the tremendous population growth experienced by the county comes tremendous problems.

Thus says state Rep. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster.

Ward is working to address those problems through a move to re-vamp the state’s Department of Transportation.

&uot;We have to do something about our road problem, and this would be a good first step,&uot;Ward said.

He plans to introduce a bill in the next session of the legislature that he said would &uot;basically remove politics from the decision-making process on road improvements in Alabama.&uot;

Research by the Legislative Fiscal Office proved to Ward that he should look into this problem.

According to that office, state gasoline tax revenues collected in the county for fiscal year 2002 were estimated at $12.9 million.

Only $4.3 million of that was used for road improvements in Shelby County, with 10 percent going to the municipalities.

Ward’s bill would create the State Transportation Commission with members appointed from three districts — north, south and central Alabama &045; by the governor for staggered six-year terms. Commissioners must be approved by a Senate Confirmation Committee, and the director of the department would be appointed by the commission, according to the bill.

Currently, he said, every four years, a new director of the Department of Transportation is appointed by the governor, &uot;in our case, that’s been every four years.&uot;

Ward said it takes the new appointee about a year to re-prioritize and set up the department, and then he must meet adhere to the five-year state road plan established by the Joint Highway Committee of the Legislature.

&uot;In the past, people have swapped votes for roads (improvements to roads), and that was the way government was run,&uot; he said.

&uot;That is wrong &045; it’s just morally wrong. That’s one reason people don’t have confidence in our government.&uot;

According to Ward’s bill as it is currently written, commissioners, one from each district, would have term limits and be paid 40 percent of the compensation of the governor’s cabinet members.

The northern district, referred to in the bill, is made up of Blount, Calhoun, Cherokee, Cleburne, Colbert, Cullman, DeKalb, Etowah, Fayette, Franklin, Jackson, Lamar, Lauderdale, Lawrence, Limestone, Madison, Marion, Marshall, Morgan, St. Clair, Walker and Winston counties.

The central district consists of Shelby County along with Autauga, Bibb, Chambers, Chilton, Clay, Coosa, Elmore, Greene, Hale, Jefferson, Lee, Perry, Pickens, Sumter, Talladega, Tallapoosa and Tuscaloosa counties.

The southern district is made up of Baldwin, Barbour, Bullock, Butler, Choctaw, Clarke, Coffee, Conecuh, Covington, Crenshaw, Dale, Dallas, Escambia, Geneva, Henry, Houston, Lowndes, Macon, Marengo, Mobile, Monroe, Montgomery, Pike, Russell, Washington and Wilcox counties.

According to the bill, the director of the department will be chosen and answer to the commission.

&uot;We’ve talked about reform (especially since the September tax vote),&uot; Ward said.

&uot;In our county, roads is the only issue. You’re not going to ever take politics completely out of it; but this goes a long way toward that.&uot;

Ward said he is currently lobbying other legislators across the state as well as the governor with the bill.

&uot;Maybe it’s naive on my part; but 27 other states have (Transportation Commissions or the equivalent), and it’s been working for them for a long time,&uot; he said, pointing to Arkansas, whose commission has worked successfully for more than 50 years; Colorado; Florida; Iowa; Michigan; Mississippi; Missouri; Montana; New Mexico; Oklahoma; Oregon; Pennsylvania; South Carolina; South Dakota; Texas; Utah; Washington; and Wyoming.

Kansas and Nebraska have a Highway Commission which works in a similar manner; and Georgia, Idaho, Nevada, North Carolina, Vermont and Virginia have a Transportation Board.

Ward said once the session begins in February, the bill has about a 50 percent chance of passing.

&uot;In the end, probably more Democrats will support it than Republicans,&uot; he said.

&uot;And it will be a tough sale to the rural counties. But the truth is that Shelby County is putting a lot of money into the state transportation department. This is where the needs are, and this is where the funds should go.&uot;

Ward said his bill would not ensure that funds would come to Shelby County, &uot;But at least, it would give us a fair chance.&uot;

&uot;Doing nothing gets us nowhere,&uot; Ward said