RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) -- North Carolina's new transportation secretary wants more emphasis put on job creation in determining which road and other infrastructure projects will be funded with the state's limited construction dollars.
Tony Tata, a retired Army general and former Wake County schools superintendent, said in an interview with The Associated Press that the economic benefits of projects ought to play a large role in developing a 25-year infrastructure plan for the state. Tata is spearheading the plan for Gov. Pat McCrory.
Tata said his new job leading an agency that spends $5.2 billion in state and federal funds annually isn't that much different than leading forces in places such as Fort Bragg, Afghanistan and Kosovo over his 28-year military career. When his forces weren't getting shot at in combat, he said, they were building airports, road and other projects to improve the local economy.
"It's very much the same type of attitude here where the governor wants to create the environment for economic prosperity, and he has given me a very clear mission to leverage infrastructure creation for job creation," he said.
McCrory said during last year's campaign that he wanted to create a long-term plan similar to one that Charlotte developed when he was mayor. Tata said the plan won't replace the state Transportation Improvement Plan, which creates a multi-year schedule for construction projects.
It also won't ignore a state Department of Transportation report released in August that estimates North Carolina will need another $60 billion - more than double the current projected funding - through 2040 to improve transportation infrastructure.
Rather, Tata said he's asked his staff to enhance the formula used to score proposed roads, bridges and other projects, which helps determine what projects are built first. Job creation only represents about 10 percent of the current formula, he said. He'd like to see that percentage higher.
"Of course, we're going to focus on safety and of course we're going to focus on easing congestion," Tata said Friday, but he added he also wants to see job creation moving close to the top of the list.
Tata said an example is the impending construction of a cold storage facility at the Wilmington port, which is overseen by DOT. The project had been languishing, but it was fast-tracked with the help of other agencies when they realized it would generate 110 jobs.
The state Ports Authority and the Council of State approved the privately built project, which will allow farmers to export more easily and cheaply their pork and poultry without driving to larger ports in Norfolk, Va., and Charleston, S.C.
"This makes so much sense," Tata said.
The project, which had McCrory's blessing, is part of the stream of department activity during Tata's first month on the job.
DOT and the Division of Motor Vehicles are still weighing how to proceed after the attorney general's office wrote Jan. 10 that the DMV should issue driver's licenses to illegal immigrants who qualify for federal work papers. The DMV commissioner in Gov. Beverly Perdue's administration told state offices in September not to issue the license while state attorneys reviewed the U.S. immigration policy, but a handful of permits were issued anyway.
Tata said whatever policy the McCrory administration followed would be communicated well. Tata said he would work as secretary to improve communication both within DOT agencies and to the public and promote an agency of customer service.
DOT took a small step forward last week when workers personally contacted more than 800 drivers who were double-charged on the Triangle's new toll road, Tata said.
Tata, a registered unaffiliated voter who was fired in September from leading North Carolina's largest school system when the Democratic majority said their relationship with him had deteriorated, said he'll continue a leadership style that is as much about listening as it is doing.
"I'll talk to anyone who wants to talk to me about any concerns that they have, and that's how I've always operated," he said.
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