Earlier this month, Gov. Roy Cooper named a new secretary for the state Department of Transportation (DOT), ending an extended period of success and strife for the agency. The old head, Jim Trogdon, was appointed in January 2017, soon after Cooper took office. The secretary had his work cut out for him, having to contend with Hurricanes Matthew and Florence while also attempting to speed up ongoing construction projects.
A combination of factors led to the DOT running out of money last year, prompting an emergency funding bill from the legislature. After this winter failed to churn out much icy weather, the department finally seems to have its feet under it. Assuming he is confirmed by the state Senate, the new appointee, Eric Boyette should take this opportunity to finish fixing past errors and start providing North Carolina with more of the fast, modern infrastructure it needs.
Trogdon’s departure was met with profuse respect from both sides of the aisle, with House Speaker Tim Moore highlighting his “impeccable leadership.” Cooper was less vocal when he announced the change but has previously defended Trogdon fiercely from attacks by State Treasurer Dale Folwell.
As to why Folwell made those attacks, the DOT has suffered a harsh couple of years, and while much was outside of Trogdon’s control, some miscommunication between him and the legislature left a stain on his record. In addition to the hurricanes, the state Supreme Court ruled a 1980s law unconstitutional which had allowed the DOT to reserve private land for highways without buying it. Paying out for the subsequent lawsuits has run over $500 million.
That said, the DOT was still treading water, and in fact, it had a positive budget balance that the legislature asked it to spend more of. In response, Trogdon asked the state to allocate money for employee raises and issue bonds to accelerate construction projects. That said, the agency spent a bit too much, causing the DOT to run out of money which forced it to cut back dramatically on construction. The DOT also spent more money than it was supposed to on raises due to a misunderstanding in how the money was allocated. A consultant’s report also found that miscommunications led to rampant overspending by local divisions.
The DOT has the potential to create a brighter future if it keeps a more conscious eye on spending and the legislature continues to allocate enough funding to do crucial repairs and start big projects. For instance, the DOT is leasing an autonomous shuttle to loop around NC State’s Centennial Campus for a year, with the aim of building trust between the public and a cutting-edge technology with major potential impacts on our economy.
In addition, the agency continues to maintain and augment our road system, to make sure that workers can get to their jobs, consumers can access all that they need, and NC State students can reliably access the benefits of Raleigh and our institution. Transportation is central to our livelihoods, and while it’s not the flashiest way to advance our well-being, its impact is unparalleled. New leaders must ensure it keeps surviving and thriving for years to come.