Kindly, Gently, Nicely 

So Gov. Don Sundquist left office swinging a 9-iron, courtesy of one of his top aides, who gave him a free pass at state golf courses potentially worth tens of thousands of dollars.

The man who closed state parks to the public because the state couldn’t pay its bills thought it’d be all right to play through. Has he no shame?

Meanwhile, Gov. Phil Bredesen appears on the verge of some of the most draconian budget cuts in Tennessee history. He will not raise taxes, he vows. But, with a shield in one hand and a battle axe in the other, he explains that 7.5 percent cuts in many departments must be made. Elbowing his way onto sacred turf, he also tells a Knoxville newspaper that the bulging highway fund is on the table.

Paving contractors and highway lobbyists must be breaking out in hives. For years, they’ve been stuffing cash in their sans-a-belts, but suddenly their hoary mountain of cash is at play. The report from The Knoxville News-Sentinel—and by the way, we’ve detected a trend that any time the governor breaks news he does so when he’s out of town, without any aides present to put their hands over his mouth—has it that Bredesen has his eyes on more than half a billion dollars in state money that is earmarked for road construction. The point is that while schoolchildren, poor people and sick people must compete with each other for dwindling state dollars, road builders get their own never-ending supply of cash. That cash comes from the gas tax.

We confess there’s a certain logic to making the people who buy gas pay for the roads they drive on. We don’t dispute that. But it’s absolutely medieval to drive on the nation’s best roads to drop your kids off at the nation’s worst schools. We’ve got our priorities all whacked out.

The highway people are naturally upset that someone is about to terminate their sinecure. So let them eat cake. It may just be that a new day is dawning over at the Tennessee Department of Transportation. The new commissioner there is Gerald Nicely, a man with a short fuse and a big bark. Everyone’s pretty much raging about the guy in his first few weeks on the job.

“He’s been very impressive,” says Barry Sulkin, an environmental consultant and the director of Tennessee Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. For 14 years, Sulkin worked for the department now called the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, and he bears the scars of innumerable scrapes with boneheaded TDOT officials. “Having dealt with all the previous commissioners for years, I can say he’s saying all the right things, and I have hope that good things will happen,” Sulkin adds.

At a recent TDOT public hearing in Fairview, held to discuss the controversial construction of state Route 840, Nicely broke with the tradition of never listening to ordinary people. He attended. To express his concern that the department has not listened to the environmental community, he held a gathering two weeks ago in his office to hear what environmentalists had to say. Those present talked about gift-giving from highway contractors to TDOT administrators and other public officials, the fact that the environmental impact process doesn’t work well, and the false theater that TDOT public hearings have come to be.

This week, it became very evident that Nicely intends to rock the agency he oversees. He announced the hiring of the very able Ed Cole, the director of Cumberland Region Tomorrow, to be TDOT’s chief of environment and planning. Cole’s organization researches growth and sprawl patterns in Middle Tennessee. Chief among the group’s concerns is the impact of road construction on the way we build our towns and cities. In a word, Cole gets it.

Locally, having Nicely at the helm of TDOT can only be a blessing to the city. For instance, his department was scheduled to begin repaving Harding Road in only a matter of weeks. Planning experts in Metro had hoped that bike lanes would be added to the street. Under Sundquist, TDOT had said the bike lanes couldn’t be included in the road. But thankfully, Nicely this week presented a plan for including the lanes, if that’s what Metro wants.

We’re hopeful Gerald Nicely can give Tennesseans a say in where their transportation dollars go. So far, it seems that us regular folks, who have been waging war with unresponsive bureaucrats perched atop paving machines, have something to smile about.


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