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Joe Marie Gets Rocket-Style Ejected From the Transportation Commissioner's Seat. Great. NOW What?

Can the state Department of Transportation get anything done in the next six months?

Gregory B. Hladky

July 13, 2010

Connecticut is committing billions of dollars to improve mass transit and ease the gridlock strangling our highways, but it can’t seem to find a way to lift the curse hanging over our sorry-ass, hard-luck state Department of Transportation.

With barely six months left to her term as governor, M. Jodi Rell has just forced out the guy she promised would lead the agency out of its corrupt, inept and pro-road past and into a bright, efficient mass-transit future. Making it worse is that his departure under an uncertain cloud of sexual harassment allegations comes at what may be a critical time for Connecticut’s transportation system.

Joe Marie’s rocket-style ejection from the transportation commissioner’s seat is only the latest spin of the constantly revolving door of the DOT’s leadership office. His replacement is his former deputy, Jeffrey Parker, who becomes the agency’s ninth commissioner in a decade.

Rell administration insiders, lawmakers and DOT employees agree this extraordinary turnover is one of the underlying reasons why efforts to reform Connecticut’s transportation department have been so incredibly frustrating.

“You never feel there’s any stability or any real direction,” says John Vitale, a 23-year DOT veteran and president of a union representing about one-third of the agency’s 3,000-plus employees. “Now we’re in a state of flux again.”

John Hartwell, a member of Connecticut’s rail commuter council, is worried what all this will mean for the state’s efforts to bring 300 new cars into service on Metro North’s New Haven Line. “We’ve lost our front-line guy on this project,” he says, noting the rail-car plan is already at least a year behind schedule.

The co-chair of the legislature’s Transportation Committee, state Sen. Donald DeFronzo of New Britain, is troubled by what impact Marie’s departure may have on big plans to create a New Haven-Hartford-Springfield commuter line.

“One of the things that concerns me a lot is that [Marie] was the point man,” DeFronzo says. DeFronzo describes the new commuter-rail scheme as the single most important transportation project in the state and possibly in New England. The DOT is facing an Aug. 6 deadline to submit the state’s application for hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding for the New Haven to Springfield line.

DOT spokesman Kevin Nursick says the application for federal funds “has always been Jeff’s responsibility, so there has been no time-lag or any need to bring him up to speed on this.”

Rell insists there will be a “seamless transition” at the DOT, and says the new commissioner has her “full confidence.”

Such reassurances offer little comfort because Rell has turned into the quintessential political lame duck. The governor and her controversial chief of staff, M. Lisa Moody, give every indication their main goal now is to coast out the remaining few months of Rell’s term as quietly as possible.

The way Marie’s forced resignation was handled or mishandled may well be a product of that desire to avoid any messy situations. Unfortunately for Rell, this attempt seems to have backfired.

On June 29, one of Rell’s top aides called Marie in for a sudden, private meeting and told him there were allegations he’d sexually harassed an employee. Marie says he was given no specifics but was given a choice: immediately sign a statement promising not to bad-mouth Rell and he could resign in good standing; otherwise he’d be fired under a cloud and escorted off state property.

Marie signed and resigned. Rell quickly recanted, giving out her version of events at the first hint of media pressure. The former commissioner denies any improper behavior and has gotten himself a lawyer.

The only thing that’s clear is the DOT is once again involved in scandal, and it’s at a point in its history when many believe serious reforms were just beginning to turn the agency around.

Few state departments have a record as troubled as the DOT’s. In the last seven years, the agency has been racked by corruption scandals and investigations involving rail administration, paving contractors and highway projects. There have been tens of millions of dollars in cost overruns, planning and design errors, persistent delays and disasters like the I-84 project that involved shoddy, flawed construction, non-existent supervision and a contractor that went bankrupt.

The agency became notorious for its cozy relationship with highway contractors and consultants, and for waiting out reform-minded commissioners because bureaucrats knew it wouldn’t be long before a new guy came in the door.

Rell became ticked off by the DOT’s resistance both to reform and to mass transit programs. She proposed breaking the agency up. That was rejected, but the department has undergone reforms in recent years. They include more safeguards over contracting, changes in mid-level management, and a greater concentration on developing mass transportation.

“There have been some significant improvements,” says Vitale, who is president of the DOT employee bargaining unit of the Connecticut State Employees Association/SEIU Local 2001.

DeFronzo gives Marie credit for helping change the focus toward rail and bus service, for improving morale and creating a more professional environment. But Marie was only there for two years. “I think you need the continuity of a commissioner being there four or five years to make significant progress,” DeFronzo says.

Parker, who was brought in by Marie, is likely to be in office for just six months. He gets good grades from people who have worked with him but he may not have enough time to do more than act as a caretaker. By January, Connecticut will have a new governor who will almost certainly want to put his own person in to lead one of the state’s most important agencies.

“[Parker] is a lame duck,” says DeFronzo. “I’m sure that’s how he’ll be perceived. … He may have a tough six months ahead of him.”

“There’s no organization of this size in the world that can run effectively with new leadership every two years,” Hartwell says. “It takes a long time to turn a bureaucracy around.”

Especially one with the sad history of Connecticut’s DOT.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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