For someone who was recently given a pink slip, Gena Evans is chipper.
"If you can't notice the smile on my face, the best day I've had at GDOT was Thursday," the former Georgia Department of Transportation commissioner says, referring to her ousting last week from the state agency. "I'm very happy to be gone."
And now that Evans no longer heads one of the state's most powerful agencies one that's facing a drastic restructuring under a controversial plan pushed by Gov. Sonny Perdue she says she can be frank in her criticism of the department. She speaks lovingly of the employees but paints a grim portrait of a $2 billion agency that's mired in politics.
Evans, who now earns a paycheck as executive director of the State Road and Tollway Authority, sat down with CL at that agency's downtown offices looking over the city skyline this afternoon. She talked about Perdue's grand reorganization plan, the "systemic" problems at GDOT, her occasional thoughts about resigning, and Georgia's overall transportation landscape. It ain't pretty and it's all after the jump.
Evans, who was widely considered a reform-minded commissioner of a department saddled with organizational problems, said GDOT's governance is a major problem and that the department's woes are systemic. Simply tinkering with the problems wouldn't be a 14-month process, she says, but a five to 10 year overhaul.
"The way things are set up, there's absolutely no way to be successful," she said. "The board had to hire a person who worked for them, but who also had to be the disciplinarian of the board. You were constantly saying, 'No way, we can't do this' to board members. I spent way more time answering board members' request rather than things a CEO should be working on. It was a constant 'tell-me-about-this-sign-in-Tifton' or 'tell-me-about-this-contract-waiting-to-be-signed.' It wasn't about strategy, it was always about the politics of getting something through the office. It was very frustrating for someone who didn't come from the political arena, to move into an organization where my day job was not running a business but dealing with requests all day."
Requests from board members became a burden on senior GDOT staff, Evans said, so she started a system to track those requests. Even her husband, former chairman Mike Evans, who resigned after the two disclosed their relationship, found a way to circumvent the system.
"This is the fifth state agency I've worked. Out of all them, I've never seen more smart people collectively trying to do the right thing than I have at GDOT. The employees, I can't say enough about. They bleed DOT yellow and try to do the right thing. But you can't the way [GDOT's] set up. You're constantly under fire to change the process for every particular project. You can't even take a break without following a policy procedure saying where, when and how."
She thinks Gerald Ross, GDOT's chief engineer who was named interim commissioner after Evans was fired, is capable of handling the job and "heading in the right direction." But she thinks he'll face challenges when it comes to the governance.
"He's instituted project management in the department where someone takes ownership of a project form beginning to end," Evans said. "I think keeping all that moving is the right answer. And I think Gerald is going to have a hard time doing that. He has the capability, but it's having to say 'no' all the time."
Just how GDOT will operate in the future is in question. Perdue recently unveiled his plan to create a new transportation agency, the State Transportation Authority, which would handle people-moving decisions in the state. If passed, the new authority would be led by a transportation "secretary" appointed by the governor and managed by an 11-member board. The governor would pick five members and the lieutenant governor and House speaker would each select three. GDOT's role in transportation decisions would be greatly reduced.
Perdue's plan has been met with opposition by some lawmakers and GDOT board members who say it would give too much power to the state's leadership. The board, however, has not issued a collective response. Evans says she remained silent on the proposal because she was advised by the board not to speak either for or against the plan until it could reach a consensus.
"We had asked both the legislative committee chair and the board chair how they wanted us to respond to the bill," Evans said. "We're sitting in meetings and the board chairman told us not to respond and engage in the discussion. There was a lot of discussion among the board. I don't think they have a consensus on how to respond collectively. We felt like our hands were tied."
But she thinks Perdue has a good idea.
"I can tell you now that I'm able to talk about it," she said. "I definitely support the governance change. As commissioner I didn't have any say-so on who worked underneath me. That was selected by the board. That governance piece to me was a big part of the problem. The biggest obstacle it would be governance. I'm excited to see the governor's bill. I'm excited that they are looking for changes. Now, will it pass? That's a whole other question."
Under Perdue's plan, the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority and SRTA would merge a move she thinks would be positive. Evans said she is happy with SRTA's size and focus and didn't say whether she would accept a position with a new transportation agency if asked. She was the governor's chair of SRTA and had a seat on the board while commissioner at GDOT. She says she has a good working relationship with its employees and was involved with many of its projects, such as converting some high-occupancy vehicle lanes to toll lanes. (It should be noted that Perdue fought hard to have Evans lead GDOT. Some board members have criticized her for being loyal to the governor.)
Whether Perdue's organization passes could also determine whether the state, which is cash-strapped to pay for necessary road, bridge and transit projects, will get the money to alleviate its congestion and mobility fiasco. Perdue recently said he wouldn't support either the Senate or House's transportation funding proposals until state lawmakers approve his proposed reorganization. Evans says the need for additional funding is vital if the state wants to remain competitive.
"It's huge, she says. "Absolutely huge. I've learned int the last 14 months that transportation is directly tied to economic development in this state. If we don't solve this transportation funding issue, we are going to be not nearly as competitive with other states as we have been in the past. That 's going to be a problem not for Atlanta, not for south Georgia, but for all Georgians. That's what concerns me."
Evans said transit is important, but the state's in a crunch. Cash for rail projects has dwindled and is hard to come by. For transit to succeed, she said, the state needs to find a dedicated funding source. She also said GDOT's funding structure makes transit a hard program to keep alive. The motor fuel tax that funds the agency and its projects can only be used on roads and bridges. That also means those funds can only be paid to employees who work on only roads and bridges. The agency's intermodal program, she says, is allocated money from the General Assembly. When state leadership calls for department heads to make cuts, she said, the intermodal program is one of the few places a GDOT commissioner can look.
Evans said she spoke with Perdue the night before she was fired and that she's heard from state lawmakers who have said GDOT board members did not warn them she was going to be fired. She says she often grew weary with the pressure to oust her throughout her 14-month tenure.
"You need to recognize, that since I've been there 14 months, they've had 4 or 5 votes [to remove me] constantly," she said. "You're trying to do a good job, you're trying to lead change, you're trying to change the paradigm, you're trying to move a bureaucracy that's been in place for 30 years and you're constantly counting votes. I asked some of the old DOT staffers, 'Is this what the commissioner does? Sit around and count votes?' How are you ever going to effect change if you have to sit and count votes every week? I always kept that in the back of my mind the 14 months I was were. I've definitely been thinking about it the last six to eight weeks what I wanted to do long term."
She said the lack of confidence caused her to consider resigning several times during her term. When Board Chairman Bill Kuhlke of Augusta and Vice Chairman Larry Walker of Macon, the only two board members last Thursday who voted not to fire her, told Evans the other members had enough votes to oust her, they offered her the chance to resign.
"I said absolutely not," Evans said. "'You will go out there and raise your hand. If you're gonna fire me, by God you're gonna raise your hand and vote.' But I never thought about [resigning] twice on Thursday."
Evans spoke glowingly about GDOT employees. She was criticized during her term, however, for hurting employee morale. She disagreed with the notion, saying she joined a department already filled with disgruntled employees.
"Take a look at my past history at other state agencies and one thing I've always focused on is trying to improve employee situations," she said. "I started a salary survey to see if there was a way to bring those salaries to market positions. I got HEROs [the fleet of yellow trucks who assist stranded motorists] a pay increase the only one they've ever had.
"Morale is an easy shot to take at a CEO," she added. "When I got to GDOT, morale was terrible to begin with. I'll tell you, there's not a state agency in place right now that's not going through morale issues because of the financial crunch. I think GDOT was pretty much the same situation."
She said the agency will have to rethink how it operates, as well, because it's current funding is not enough to keep it running.
"Employees were starting to recognize that financially, we were going to have to do something in [fiscal year 2010]. There's not enough money to pay employees. FY10, with or without me, someone's going to have to make a call about staffing positions at GDOT."
When asked if she had any regrets or if she'd have done anything differently during her term, Evans said she'd have to think about it. She did learn some things, however.
"The best that came out of all this... First of all, Mike [her husband]. I've been divorced for 12 years and never thought I'd remarry again. For me, gaining Mike and his stepdaughters. It's been a blast to have girls around. I learned a lot about myself personally. I've realized family's first. My mom's been in the hospital for four weeks. When Mr. Kuhlke and Walker told me they thought the board had the votes [to fire me], I walked out the door and went straight to the hospital [to see my mom]. It puts thing in perspective. My kid, family, husband. For 20 years, I've done nothing but work, work, work. And go to school and focus on my career. I had a real wake-up call out of this 14 months that put things in perspective for me."
She continues: "Do I have regrets? Heck no. Did I make mistakes? Sure, I made mistakes. I don't know a CEO who doesn't. It was a great experience for me professionally, personally, and I enjoyed getting to know the DOT employees. We do some really cool stufff. Those HEROs? They really are heroes. People don't understand all the things it takes to keep people traveling on the roadways. Things happen for a reason, and I think there a lot of reasons I got to DOT and got out of DOT. I don't really sit around and think about regrets because there are a lot of positive things that came from this."
(Photo courtesy of GDOT)
@ Mark from Atlanta "Leftists play sports" and "Most athletes are union members." Most professional…
"I know the endgame is making private gun ownership illegal." __________________________________________________ I grew up around…
"Lefties just hate sports..." ______________________ Since you seem to want to deal in generalizations Oy,…
@Dave Treat the disease not the symptom. Take a look at this chart via the…
Dep COO suspended for saying a few rude words about the Cobb Crackers? He should…
"They're not knick knacks for a billionaire's shelf." True, they're not knick knacks, they are…