Republican Gov. Bill Haslam is pictured in this file photo. (Photo by Wade Payne, Special to the News Sentinel)
By ERIK SCHELZIG
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. — The Tennessee Department of Transportation has begun undoing sweeping changes imposed by former Gov. Phil Bredesen in response to the agency’s poor environmental record and reputation for ignoring the wishes of local governments and communities when deciding where to put roads.
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 agency.
Meanwhile, the department’s chief engineer has been promoted to deputy commissioner, a position eliminated in the Bredesen administration as part of a series of moves that had been heavily criticized by the influential road builders lobby.
Also under consideration is a redesign of the green TDOT logo unveiled in 2003 as part of efforts to restore public faith in the then unpopular agency and to stress a renewed dedication to environmental responsibility.
Haslam’s office referred questions from The Associated Press about the changes to TDOT, but Commissioner John Schroer would not speak to a reporter after a Wednesday grant ceremony in Cookeville and later declined other requests for an interview through a spokeswoman.
“Commissioner Schroer is in the process of restructuring the Department as part of the Top to Bottom Review,” spokeswoman B.J. Doughty said in an email, adding later that the commissioner “would prefer to wait to do interviews until the changes are implemented and announcements made to TDOT staff.”
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 around 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 position of environmental and planning director on equal footing with the agency’s head engineer.
“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 but since Schroer declined to talk about the changes, it’s not clear if replacement costs have been calculated.
Brian Paddock, a Cookeville attorney who serves on the executive committee of the Tennessee chapter of the Sierra Club, said he is concerned by TDOT’s silence on the rationale for the changes within the department 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.”