Georgia official may get a $100K raise in wake of I-85 rebuild


Georgia’s top transportation official may get a $100,000 raise, in part because of his handling of the I-85 bridge collapse.

Georgia Department of Transportation Commissioner Russell McMurry would earn $350,000 annually if the State Transportation Board approves the 40 percent raise. Board Chairman Robert Brown said McMurry deserves it. Among other things, Brown cited the quick reconstruction of a stretch of I-85 in Buckhead, which reopened in May six weeks after it went up in flames and a month ahead of schedule.

“The handling of the I-85 bridge collapse was just a glimpse of the stalwart leadership we regularly see from Commissioner McMurry,” Brown said.

If the board approves it, it would be the second big raise for McMurry in two years.

He became commissioner in 2015 after 25 years at GDOT. A year later, the board raised his pay from $185,000 to $250,000. Under the latest proposal, McCurry’s pay will have increased 89 percent in two years.

The transportation board is expected to consider McMurry’s latest raise in August. State Sen. Nan Orrock, D-Atlanta, questioned the raise, saying other state employees need a pay hike.

“Most Georgia teachers and state employees went without raises for seven years. Meanwhile, their state health insurance premiums continued to increase,” Orrock said. “I’d say they are the ones who deserve double-digit raises.”

McMurry’s raise comes as GDOT’s own role in the I-85 blaze is under scrutiny.

GDOT stored fiber optic cable under the bridge for years. That cable fed the blaze – allegedly set by a homeless man – that destroyed the bridge in March. Critics have said GDOT bears some of the blame for the incident that disrupted traffic in the heart of Atlanta for weeks.

Though GDOT apparently did not violate and state or federal rules by storing the material under the bridge, the National Transportation Safety Board now is reviewing the practice.

In addition, the State Fire Marshal and State Insurance Commissioner offices are reviewing GDOT’s storage practices.

Still, GDOT pleasantly surprised the public by reopening the bridge a month ahead of schedule. It used $3.1 million in incentives to encourage the contractor to work 24 hours a day and relied on accelerated construction techniques. The work cost taxpayers about $16.6 million, though the federal government picked up most of the tab.

President Donald Trump later praised McMurry during a meeting of state transportation officials. U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao also praised Georgia’s response to the I-85 collapse during a visit to Atlanta.

McMurry declined to comment on the raise through a spokesman. He serves at the pleasure of the 14-member transportation board, and the raise does not have to be approved by Gov. Nathan Deal or other state officials.

State Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, expressed no opinion about the raise. But he said Georgia is “very fortunate to have Russell McMurry as our GDOT commissioner.”

The proposed raise could make McMurry among the state’s highest-paid employees – but not anywhere near the top. In January the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported the state’s top-paid employee in 2016 was Charles Cary, executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority, who earned more than $1.9 million. Several state university administrators and other state officials also earned far more than $350,000.

Some local government and school officials also earn more. For example, Gwinnett County Superintendent Alvin Wilbanks, who leads the state’s largest school district, earned more than $500,000 last year. And Fulton County Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand earns about $390,000 – making him the highest-paid elected official in the state.

But with a $350,000 salary McMurry’s would earn more than several top transportation officials in other states the AJC contacted.

North Carolina’s transportation secretary makes $195,352 and Florida’s secretary earns $150,000. Tennessee’s transportation commissioner makes $158,556. California pays its transportation secretary $201,869.

Brown called McMurry “one of Georgia’s most visionary and influential leaders” and said “recent events have increased both the commissioner’s and the department’s visibility throughout the state and nation…”

Brown cited the possibility of losing McMurry to the private sector as well as to other public agencies.

McMurry began his GDOT career in 1990 as an engineering trainee. He rose through the agency’s ranks as a construction project manager, district engineer, director of engineering, and chief engineer.

Brown said McMurry has helped secure sustainable funding for Georgia’s transportation network and helped make GDOT “a premier example for other states on how to manage aging infrastructure, drive innovation and lead during times of crisis.”

“This well-deserved salary increase brings the commissioner’s compensation closer to that of leaders of other agencies and private sector entities,” he said.

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Top paid state employees

The State Transportation Board has proposed a $100,000 raise for Georgia Department of Transportation Commissioner Russell McMurry, bringing his pay to $350,000. That could make him one of the state’s top-paid employees. Here’s a look at what the top 10 state employees made in fiscal year 2016.

Curtis Foltz, executive director, Georgia Ports Authority: $1,947,070

Charles Cary, chief investment officer, Teacher Retirement System: $806,490

Michael Majure, co-chief investment officer, Teacher Retirement System: $659,172

Thomas Horkan, co-chief investment officer, Teacher Retirement System: $659,172

Hank Huckaby, chancellor, University System of Georgia: $500,500

Griffith Lynch, chief operating officer, Georgia Ports Authority: $439,905

Clifford Pyron, chief commercial officer, Georgia Ports Authority: $411,773

Ben Cahyono, co-director alternative investments, Teacher Retirement System: $362,916

Steve Wrigley, vice chancellor, University System of Georgia: $340,845

Houston Davis, vice chancellor, University System of Georgia: $338,954

SOURCE: Atlanta Journal-Constitution review of state salaries

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The AJC's David Wickert keeps you updated on the latest in what’s happening with transportation in metro Atlanta and Georgia. You'll find more on myAJC.com, including these stories:

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