Questions raised over sudden departure of state’s transportation commissioner

Gov. M. Jodi Rell’s administration remained largely quiet Wednesday over the abrupt departure of Transportation Commissioner Joseph F. Marie, who left the job Tuesday afternoon, but will continue to earn his nearly $170,000-per-year salary for four more weeks.

Marie submitted a two-sentence letter of resignation following a meeting at the Office of Policy and Management Tuesday. Details of that meeting were not disclosed, but sources said he did not return to Department of Transportation headquarters in Newington.

Rell issued a written statement Wednesday reporting Marie had left “to pursue long-term employment opportunities and spend more time with his family.” The governor also announced that Deputy Commissioner Jeffrey Parker would head the agency effective immediately.

The governor’s office confirmed that Marie – who earns $169,745 annually according to the comptroller’s office – would remain on the payroll through July 29 but declined further comment. Marie could not be reached for comment Wednesday, and the DOT indicated it could not forward messages to him.

Marie told colleagues Tuesday that he had been summoned to a meeting with a senior administration official, the Hartford Courant reported late Wednesday. Not long after, Marie’s access to his state e-mail account was blocked and his key card access to DOT facilities was deactivated, the Courant said.

Marie’s unusual exit raised questions Wednesday with the Senate chairman of the legislature’s Transportation Committee and with the union representing transportation engineers, planners and analysts.

Sen. Donald J. DeFronzo, D-New Britain, co-chairman of the legislature’s Transportation Committee, said Wednesday that Marie’s sudden depareture raises questions.

“The circumstances under which this transpired, the abrupt nature of the departure, leaves me with a lot of concerns,” DeFronzo said, adding that with limited state and federal funding available for crucial transportation projects, leadership at DOT is crucial. “If this were happening under normal conditions, I don’t think it would be as big of a deal.”

DeFronzo noted that Marie “has really been the point man, not just for Connecticut but for New England,” in pursuing federal aid for a proposed $800 million commuter rail line initiative designed to serve communities between New Haven and Springfield, Mass. Connecticut already has secured about $40 million in federal aid and applications for a second round of funding are due in August, DeFronzo added.

In a report issued earlier this year, the transportation department projected a $926.4 million gap between the cost of planned highway, bridge and transit projects for the next five years, and the level of anticipated funding available.

Further complicating matters, nearly 60 percent of the roughly $1.5 billion state government has collected from the wholesale fuel tax since the 2005-06 fiscal year has been spent outside of the Special Transportation Fund, according to budget records. A $1.1 billion component within an overall state budget of $19.01 for new fiscal year that starts today, the fund is backed largely by state fuel tax revenues and federal grants, and is a primary source of funding for transportation network maintenance and new construction.

The legislature’s nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis projected in a May report that the fund would fall into deficit by the 2011-12 fiscal year. That same report projected the general fund, which represents more than 90 percent of the total budget, faces a $3.37 billion built-in shortfall in 12 months.

Local 2001 of the Connecticut State Employees Association/Service Employees Union International, which represents about 1,000 DOT engineers, planners and analysts, has been sparring with Marie and his predecessors over several management issues.

The most recent dispute has centered on the DOT’s decision to hire private-sector bridge inspectors without first preparing an analysis of whether the work could be done more effectively and for less money by state employees. Under Marie, DOT insisted this was allowed, and merely continuation of an existing practice, while the union charged it violates new requirements of the state’s “clean contracting” statute.

“We’re concerned about the future of the agency but we’re concerned about the present as well,” Local 2001 spokesman Matt O’Connor said. “His departure in the midst of this series of contracting questions left unanswered is certainly cause for concern.”

Marie took over the Connecticut DOT in April 2008 on the heels of two crises.

The first involved massive flaws found in private contractor work performed on drainage systems, bridges, guard rails and lighting on Interstate 84 in Cheshire.

The department also was taking heat from the General Assembly after the administration revealed cost estimates for a new rail car maintenance yard to be developed in New Haven had quadrupled from about $300 million in 2005 to $1.2 billion. Since Marie became commissioner, reductions in project scope have driven the cost estimate for that rail maintenance facility closer to $600 million.

“I thought he addressed some significant problems fairly quickly,” DeFronzo said.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ned Lamont of Greenwich issued a statement Wednesday praising the outgoing commissioner.

“Joe Marie helped reenergize the effort to bring high speed rail and better transit options to our state,” Lamont said. “His resignation is a great loss for Connecticut.

The DOT is one of state government’s largest agencies with nearly 3,400 employees and a $516.9 million annual budget. It is responsible for the construction and maintenance of major Connecticut roads, highways and bridges, and the state’s public transit system. The DOT also oversees commuter and freight rail lines, shoreline ports and piers, ferries and Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks.

The General Assembly’s Program Review and Investigations Committee launched a study earlier this summer to identify ways to get state transportation projects done quicker and under budget.

Marie has more than 24 years of transit industry experience in both the public and private sectors. He was director of operations and maintenance for a regional public transit system in Phoenix, Ariz., when hired by Rell. He previously held senior transit posts for the states of Pennsylvania and Massachusetts and had been assistant general manager for a metro transit operation in Minneapolis.

Parker, a Newington native, joined the DOT in 2008 after a successful tenure as senior director of transportation operations at the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority. A graduate of Northeastern University of Boston, Parker also worked for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority where he oversaw project management, safety and operations control.

“Deputy Commissioner Parker brings a wealth of experience in mass transit and commuter rail to which we are committed. I fully expect a seamless transition at DOT as we move forward with our goals,” Rell said.