Gerry Nicely has his work cut out for him. As Governor-elect Phil Bredesen’s choice for Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) commissioner, the former executive director of the Metro Development and Housing Agency (MDHA) is making a huge leap in scale. MDHA has 387 staffers and a budget of $80 million. TDOT has 4,900 employees and an annual budget of $1.5 billion. MDHA is a city agency, while TDOT has offices in all 95 counties.
The dimensions of the TDOT leadership, however, involve more than size. The department has come under increasing criticism for its Roads-R-Us monoculture, for the lack of citizen input on its projects and for the cavalier way it treats the environment. Bredesen campaigned on a promise to fix TDOT. Nicely is his fixer.
Already on a sharp learning curve in an office on the commissioner’s floor of the TDOT office block, Nicely last week outlined for the Scene his administrative strategy. He plans to establish clear chains of command for areas such as citizen participation and making nice with the environment, and then hold the responsible feet to the fire. He also perceives a necessity to go beyond what state and federal laws require to restore credibility for the troubled department.
Nicely admits that the scope of TDOT operations will take some getting used to. But he finds similarities between TDOT and MDHA that should give him an administrative leg up on his new job. Nicely points out that both are high-profile agencies that have to deal regularly with the public, with legislative bodies and with comparable suppliers of servicesengineers, architects and contractors. “And I think my background with Phil Bredesen will help,” he says. “I worked closely with him, not only at MDHA, but as his chief of staff for a while. Knowing him and how he operates is a big plus.”
Nicely also brings with him a reputation for integrity. Many city housing authorities have been notorious cesspools of graft. Under Nicely, MDHA wasn’t one of them. The smell TDOT carries, on the other hand, is not squeaky clean. For years, stories have circulated on the bureaucratic grapevine about road builders’ jets carrying TDOT officials to lavish dinners in Washington, D.C., and other political watering holes. Skeptics have made snide comments about the repaving of roads with no apparent defects by contractors with friends in high TDOT places.
Nicely seems firmly resolved not to tolerate any funny business in his new departmentand a little surprised with brazen tactics of the past. “Bredesen has said he’s going to issue a new ethics policy, and we’ll take our lead from that,” Nicely says. “Someone just told mealthough I haven’t seen itthat there’s a state law exempting certain kinds of contractors from the gift-giving provisions of state government. Clearly we’ve got to deal with that. There are a lot of good people here at TDOT, who want to do a good job. But for TDOT to fulfill its mission, it’s got to have credibility with the citizens it serves. Ethics is just one component of that.”
Another component of TDOT’s current lack of credibility is the way it doesand doesn’tinvolve the community in its projects. Case in point: last week’s public meeting on noise abatement necessitated by TDOT’s plans to widen Ellington Parkway from four to six lanes.
The meeting represented the typical TDOT divide-and-conquer routine. A nice lady asked citizens to sign in and gave them a blue card on which they could make written comments about whether they supported the construction of noise barrier walls along the segments of Ellington near residential areas. There was no public presentation of the plans and no general Q&A session. Engineers were available to explain the maps in response to specific questions from individuals. But citizens had no opportunity to ascertain if concerns they might have were shared by othersundercutting the sense that the communal voice has power.
More importantly, none of the staff at the meeting was able to discuss why Ellington is being widened. The meeting was strictly about noise abatementnot the cause of the noise needing abatement.
Joe Carpenter, a TDOT civil engineer, expertly explained his engineering maps: how the parkway’s median would be filled in with two additional traffic lanes and how a section of Spring Street would be widened from four to six lanes to feed widened access ramps. But once questions arose that deviated from the mapspossible impacts of additional traffic on the mostly black residents of Settle Court, Sam Levy Homes and the Maxwell neighborhoodhe grew tongue-tied. Carpenter explained that he was not a planner, that there were no planners present and that such issues were not his area of expertise.
Afterward, in the parking lot outside, several community members were complaining that the project “seems to be a done deal” and asking themselves “why did we bother?”
Nicely agrees that the citizen participation process needs work. “If people go away from a public meeting feeling that they haven’t had any input, then you haven’t succeeded.” He points to Mayor Bill Purcell’s Office of Neighborhoods as an example of what he’d like to implement.
“We’ve got to get some staff, whether it’s a division or whatever, who are devoted to citizen participation,” he says. “It will be their responsibility to make sure that the right staff are at the meetings, that input is received and responded to appropriately.... I hasten to add that you’re never going to make everybody happy, no matter what you do. But at least if you have a process in which most responsible people feel they’ve been given the opportunity for input, and that the affected residents have had an impact on the outcome, then you’ll establish a reputation that will serve you well.”
TDOT’s current reputation for being hard of hearing extends beyond the citizens affected by its projectsto environmentalists, mass transit supporters and walking and biking advocates. Nicely says it will be “my challenge” to bring new voices into the process. He’ll need two very good ears to hear them over the loud and moneyed talk of the traditional lobbyists: road and bridge builders, concrete and asphalt suppliers, petroleum sellers, home and mall builders. But Nicely seems confident that he can manage the juggling act. “The road builders will still have a role to play,” he says. “And my experience has been that once contractors understand what the rules areand if you’re consistent in how you apply the rulesthey’ll go along.”
Nicely says new environmental rules aren’t optional. “There are laws that can’t be ignored.” He points to the consent agreement TDOT recently signed with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC), “which will requireas I’m just learningvery significant changes within TDOT [in the way erosion is controlled and water quality is assessed]. These changes may be onerous, but they’re also an opportunity to do the things we need to do.”
Nicely’s administrative strategy for environmental affairs is similar to what he proposes for citizen participation: establish clear responsibility. “This is very preliminary, and I’m not sure how to do it yet, but we may need to have all the environmental personnel consolidated,” he explains. “Make a division on a level with construction, engineering and operations. Right now the environmental staff seem so scattered throughout the department.”
Nicely says that the environmental impacts of projects, as well as land use impacts and cost/benefit analyses, need to be evaluated in more depth before projects are fully planned. “That’s one of the major changes,” he says. “We have no choicethe federal environmental laws are out there. I just heard there’s a road project stalled in Blount County because [TDOT] didn’t do the right kind of environmental impact study.”
Certain road projects already on the TDOT books will be reevaluated when Nicely takes charge. He says Bredesen has two in mind in particularthe controversial 840 North and the so-called “orange route” selected for the Knoxville bypass. “Transportation is a very long-term process,” Nicely explains, adding that he wants to mitigate the tendency of road projects to take on a life of their own. “A good example is the Gateway corridor” planned for Nashville’s SoBro area, he says. “A lot of decisions about that road were made early, and when [TDOT and Metro Public Works] got into the project, those early assumptions just didn’t turn out to be true. It’s probably still on the books to have that road fly over the Gulch, where Steve Turner is investing several million in redevelopment. That just doesn’t make sense.” Nicely says he thinks it’s necessary to establish some “critical entry points along the way in a project, to evaluate what you’re doing and see if you need to make changes.”
Most of the changes Nicely wants to make involve processes. But he acknowledges that the transportation needs of metropolitan regions are “vastly different” from rural needs, and TDOT’s policies and processes should reflect that. Nicely looks for assistance from the Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs), groups of city and county officials mandated by federal law to coordinate land use and transportation planning on a regional basis. “The MPOs should help set policy for their areas,” he says. “I’ve learned that sometimes to be more effective you have to give up some control rather than consolidate control.”
Changing the TDOT culture won’t be easy. Nicely inherits a staff dominated by aging white menall but a hundred of whom are protected by civil serviceto which he vows to bring some diversity. But there’s a hiring freeze, the state budget is in crisis and TDOT’s portion of it is under attack. Understandably, the anxiety in the corridors of TDOT is palpable. Nicely has some reassuring words for his new staff, but there’s a flash of steel as well.
“My reputation as an administrator is that I may not be the easiest person to deal with, but if the people who work for me do a good job, they’ll be OK. Phil’s made the commitment to keep TDOT’s budget intact. But if we don’t resolve some of these problems, TDOT will be more and more vulnerable to that happening.”
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