Tennyson to join DOT, McCrory

Mar. 18, 2013 @ 10:26 PM

Former Durham Mayor Nick Tennyson announced Monday that he’ll be joining Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration, as a chief deputy secretary of the N.C. Department of Transportation.

Tennyson will start work at DOT on April 1, after stepping down from his longtime job as executive vice president of the Home Builders Association of Durham, Orange and Chatham Counties.

At DOT, “one of the primary functions that I’m to accomplish is to work on and support the development of the governor’s 25-year infrastructure plan,” Tennyson said, adding that the plan is “obviously a very high priority” that dictates “making the move as quickly as I can” from the Home Builders.

Tennyson, like McCrory, is a Republican. He was Durham’s mayor from 1997 to 2001.

He’s the second high-profile former GOP officeholder from Durham to join McCrory’s administration. Former City Councilman Thomas Stith is the governor’s chief of staff.

Former political foes in Durham welcomed the appointment.

“That’s great for Nick,” Mayor Bill Bell said when apprised of the news. He added that Tennyson and McCrory “go back a long ways.”

The two in fact were among the co-founders of the N.C. Metropolitan Mayors Coalition, a group that initially included the elected leaders of the state’s largest cities and towns, who joined forces to lobby the General Assembly on behalf of urban interests.

Transportation has always been a key issue for the coalition. McCrory and Tennyson made their mark in the 1990s as pro-transit Republicans unhappy with the state’s neglect of urban transportation needs.

McCrory helped Charlotte’s government secure legislative and voter approval for a half-cent local-option sales-tax surcharge to fund development of a rail line.

Tennyson and other Triangle officials pointed to Charlotte’s example as one this region should emulate.

But legislative approval for a local-option levy for this part of the state was slow in coming, only making it through both chambers of the General Assembly in 2009, long after Tennyson was out of office. Bell defeated him in the 2001 election.

Support for transit is increasingly anomalous in the Republican Party, and McCrory has hedged when asked about supporting transit development in the Triangle by saying local officials have to convince him it would help relieve congestion.

Asked about transit’s place in the 25-year infrastructure plan, Tennyson similarly hedged.

“It depends on the locality,” he said, adding, “I don’t want to go into this with any answer pre-written.”

State Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham, likewise said Tennyson’s appointment doesn’t necessarily translate into administration support for the local plan.

“That’s yet to be determined,” said McKissick, a former Durham city councilman who challenged Tennyson in the 1999 election and lost.

“I would hope he’d do a great deal of preparation and pull together a team of experts who can help guide us in charting infrastructure planning for the state, that looks not only at traditional needs but alternatives, such as facilities for mass transit where it’s appropriate,” McKissick said. “It’s certainly not appropriate in rural parts of the state, but in the immensely urban areas, it should certainly be one of the things we seriously consider.”

Development of the 25-year plan is a McCrory campaign promise, one he highlighted soon after taking office.

The pledge has drawn criticism in some quarters because DOT already works off a seven-year plan and cities, to comply with federal rules, have to formulate at least a 20-year plan for transportation.

The long-range plan for the Triangle is in the midst of an update that looks to 2040.

The draft document calls for spending about $22.8 billion on upkeep, operations and expansions of the area’s road and transit network, with $14.2 billion of that allotted to roads and $8.6 billion to transit. The figure assumes continued large federal subsidies of local transportation development, not just state support.

Tennyson acknowledged that a number of long-range plans are already in place.

“I have never spoken in favor of reinventing the wheel,” he said. “So the question of how those processes worked and whether or not they’ve had a long enough time horizon and enough interrelationship with other aspects of policy, those are all open questions for me. We just need to get into this and see if there’s a possibility of helping enhance the coordination and taking advantage of the work that’s been done.”