COOKEVILLE, Tenn. — The Tennessee Department of Transportation chief says staff changes he is making don’t signal a retreat from sweeping reforms implemented by former Gov. Phil Bredesen.
Commissioner John Schroer, responding to an Associated Press report, said Friday that it would be a “leap” to conclude that he’s de-emphasizing environmental concerns after promoting his chief engineer to become his deputy.
Meanwhile, Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration has confirmed that TDOT’s chief administrator, top environmental officer and director of project management are each leaving.
The deputy commissioner position had been eliminated in the Bredesen administration as part of a series of moves that had been heavily criticized by the influential road builders lobby.
Bredesen instead placed the chief engineer and director of environment and planning on equal footing as part of an effort to improve TDOT’s poor environmental record and reputation for ignoring local governments and communities when deciding where to put roads.
Schroer said the promotion of top engineer Paul Degges to deputy commissioner doesn’t indicate a return to pre-Bredesen priorities.
“I don’t understand that leap,” said Schroer. “One won’t be over the other one — environment and planning will still directly report to me.”
A TDOT spokeswoman said before the AP report appeared that Schroer declined to give an interview about changes at the department, which also may include a redesign of the green TDOT logo created by the Bredesen administration.
Before being named TDOT commissioner, Schroer served as mayor of Franklin, where he butted heads with the department over the city’s plans for an interchange and overpass along Interstate 65.
The management of TDOT during the administration of then-Gov. Don Sundquist became a major issue during the campaign to succeed the term-limited Republican in 2002.
“TDOT under Sundquist had of a philosophy of: ‘We’ll tell you what you need, and you’re going to get it,’” said Ric Finch, co-chairman the Cookeville Area Residents Association.
“We think that that’s the wrong philosophy, and if the Haslam administration is moving back toward that kind of TDOT, it is a definite step backward — and quite appalling,” said Finch, a retired geology professor at Tennessee Tech.
Bredesen, a Democrat, declared during the 2002 governor’s race that TDOT was “out of control” and ran campaign ads pledging to clean up the troubled agency that had been the target of outside lawsuits and frequent fines by the state Department of Environment and Conservation.
That message resonated with voters across the state, including those upset over projects like the Orange Route in Knox County, state Route 840 around Nashville and Corridor J near Cookeville, among several others. Vocal critics of TDOT included Victor Ashe, Haslam’s predecessor as Knoxville mayor.
A Williamson County judge in 2000 ordered a permanent halt to construction on state Route 840 in a scathing ruling that said the TDOT commissioner had engaged in “abuse of power” in violating department and state environmental standards in plans for the highway.
That decision was overturned by the state appeals court a year later on jurisdictional grounds. Construction on the nearly 80-mile highway began in 1991, but isn’t expected to be completed until the end of next year.
After his election as governor, Bredesen broke with past practices in appointing a commissioner who didn’t have connections to the road building industry, and by placing the engineering and environmental directors at equal levels within the department.
“The primary thing that accomplished was balance,” said Ed Cole, who was TDOT’s environment and planning chief from 2003 until early 2010.
“It said that certainly the Transportation Department is responsible for transportation,” he said. “But how it goes about that needs to be done in a way that is consistent with environmental considerations, and that the process included the public more than it did in the past.”
Bredesen’s changes at TDOT were condemned at the time by Kent Starwalt, executive director of the Tennessee Road Builders Association, who wrote in the group’s magazine that new TDOT rules favored “build-nothing extremists” and “small but vocal groups of local citizens.”
Starwalt was more measured about changes being made under the Haslam administration.
“Clearly we believe there can be balance between protecting the environment and building our infrastructure and our roads and bridges,” Starwalt said in a phone interview on Wednesday. “It’s important to make sure that there is that balance out there.”
Starwalt said he was unaware of the specific changes at TDOT, but said he defers to others to make those calls.
“Those are the decisions of the commissioner and the governor,” he said. “That’s their job.”
The TDOT logo is emblazoned on the agency’s vehicles, brochures and other items. Spokeswoman Lyndsay Botts said Schroer is considering changes based on feedback around the state.
“People within the department brought it to the commissioner’s attention that they were never pleased with the old logo, and everywhere he went in the state people said we want a new logo,” she said.
“It doesn’t have anything to do with the green or the environmental side.”
Brian Paddock, a Cookeville attorney who serves on the executive committee of the Tennessee chapter of the Sierra Club, said he is concerned by reshuffling at TDOT because most of the Bredesen changes were made through internal policies that could be easily wiped out.
“Since the regulations of TDOT weren’t revised, that kind of guidance can be cast aside, disregarded and is legally unenforceable,” he said.
Paddock said TDOT had made progress toward a goal of collegial relationships with communities by reducing the level of hostility and enhancing transparency.
“TDOT has created an expectation that it was going to be open, honest, fair, fact-based and environmentally sensitive,” he said. “And if this signals a move away from that, it’s going to reap a harvest of negative responses.”