McCrory pick for DOT draws cautious response

Jan. 03, 2013 @ 07:51 PM

Incoming Gov. Pat McCrory’s transportation secretary is a familiar face to local officials, but a mysterious one on the issue they most care about.

McCrory on Thursday announced that he’d tapped former Wake County Schools Superintendent and U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Tony Tata to run the N.C. Department of Transportation.

Immediate reaction locally was muted.

“That’s going to be very interesting,” Durham Mayor Bill Bell said of the Tata appointment. “I don’t know the gentleman, though I have met him. It looks like he’s making a career change to a certain extent.”

Likewise, Triangle Transit General Manager David King said “only time will tell” whether the appointment is a good one.

“He could be an all star, or he could fall down on his face,” King said. “It’s an interesting pick, I’ll tell you that.”

King, like Bell, said he’d met Tata but had little in the way of serious dealings with him.

“He had no brush with our business and I have no knowledge of what his attitudes are on transit,” King said. “But being a military man, he’ll take his marching orders from his boss.”

Tata is fresh off a short run as Wake schools superintendent.

He was brought in by a majority-Republican school board to develop a new pupil-assignment plan but quickly fell out of favor after Democrats won control after the 2011 election. He clashed openly with a couple of Democratic members, and was sacked this fall after the district had busing problems early in the school year.

Tata comes to DOT with “the experience of having managed large organizations,” King said, adding that “you don’t become a general without being a good manager and good people person and well-disciplined.”

But he added that the DOT secretary position is notorious for having to answer to many masters – including the governor, the governor’s key aides, the state Board of Transportation and the 170-member General Assembly.

“It’s quite a juggling act,” King said of the politics embedded in the position.

McCrory, a Republican, said he wants Tata to develop a 25-year infrastructure plan for the state, reorganize the department, fix the Division of Motor Vehicles and deal with DOT’s common-to-every-state maintenance dilemmas.

Durham officials have business of their own with the department in the next few years, on the highway front including the scheduled start of construction on a widening of Alston Avenue and on the all-new East End Connector.

But King’s question about Tata’s attitudes on transit touched on the biggest project of all, a planned light-rail connection between Durham and Chapel Hill.

Construction on that is still a long-term prospect, but officials are counting on the state underwriting about 25 percent of the bill. That would follow the precedent set when Charlotte – whose then-mayor was McCrory – financed the development of its own rail system.

McCrory on Thursday said it’s possible he’ll support a rail project in the Triangle, “if they meet the same criteria I asked for when I was mayor of Charlotte regarding [a] federal match and also if they meet the ridership potential and do the right land-use” planning.

Apprised of that comment, King said: “Good. That’s all we could ask of him. In fact, it’s good to hear him say that.”

He added that local ridership projections are comparable to what Charlotte officials launched with, and that both regions are ahead of the curve on the land-use front by focusing density around potential stations.

But Bell, a Democrat, said N.C. House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, recently hinted to city and town leaders from across the state that the General Assembly may have other ideas.

Tillis “maybe implied that Charlotte was the last region to see” large state construction subsidies for transit and that others might receive only expanded authority to tax their own citizens to pay for it, Bell said.

Tata will be taking over DOT from current Secretary Gene Conti, an appointee of outgoing Gov. Beverly Perdue who had prior experience in both the state and federal transportation departments.

Conti has received praise from many politicians, McCrory included, for insisting that DOT rely more heavily on data in its decision-making.