Gov. Nikki Haley's selection to head the state Department of Transportation would bring a national perspective to the job and with it, experience in the federal grants process for infrastructure projects. Both assets could provide a real plus to the DOT, which could use a fresh viewpoint - and a lot more money.
Janet Oakley has served for 15 years as director of policy and government relations for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, headquartered in Washington, D.C.
"We have done everything that we know to do in-state," Gov. Haley said, in making the announcement Monday. "We need somebody to come in ... that actually has seen other states and what has made them prosper when it comes to their infrastructure and put that to work here in South Carolina."
Gov. Haley emphasized that Ms. Oakley would be looking at South Carolina's transportation needs, not regionally, but statewide. One candidate for the job, former highway commissioner Johnny Edwards, said it was time for the Upstate to receive more attention to its roads and bridges.
The broader perspective is essential for the daunting task facing the next transportation secretary: How is the state to deal with a growing project shortfall, estimated at some $30 billion over the next 20 years.
Neither Gov. Haley nor the Legislature has been willing to endorse a gas tax increase, even though the state has one of the lowest gas taxes in the nation and even though it hasn't been increased since 1987.
And even though the state has such a clear and long-standing need for additional resources for roads and bridges.
Maybe Ms. Oakley can improve the funding situation through her expertise in federal grantsmanship, as Gov. Haley stated in her press conference.
Every little bit helps, though at this point the federal highway fund has problems of its own.
Certainly Ms. Oakley's extensive expertise in dealing with state and federal highway officials on policy matters will give her rare insight into the state's highway problems and potential solutions.
AASHTO is a nonprofit organization representing the highway departments of all 50 states on behalf of a unified transportation system and uniform construction standards, and its serves as a liaison to the federal government on transportation matters. Its purview includes highways, aviation, rail, public transit and ports.
While most of the DOT's past directors have come from in-state over the past 25 years, variously from the DOT, the highway commission and the Legislature, two were from out of state. The previous secretary, Robert St. Onge, was an Army general who moved to South Carolina after retiring from the military.
Mr. St. Onge's expert analysis of the situation at DOT after spending some months there was that, absent additional resources, his job would be "to manage the decline of the state highway system." That was a reasonable if gloomy assessment of the department's funding woes.
It will be interesting to hear Ms. Oakley's views when she appears before the state Senate in confirmation hearings, probably next month.
Incidentally, Ms. Oakley and her husband have built a house on Edisto Island, where they eventually plan to retire. So the DOT nominee already has some experience with South Carolina's highways, practically as well as from a policy standpoint.
Driving on Highway 174 to Edisto offers a driving experience that can only enhance the motorist's appreciation of South Carolina's scenic tree-lined roadways.
And the DOT surely could use some high-level support along those lines.
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