Janet Oakley resigned Monday as secretary of the S.C. Department of Transportation, a little more than a year after taking the $156,200-a-year job.
Oakley did not cite a reason for her departure in her resignation letter to Gov. Nikki Haley, who appointed her: “I have appreciated the opportunity to lead the department and now look forward to spending time with my husband at our home on Edisto Island.”
She offered to stay while Haley searches for a replacement.
Haley told reporters Monday that Oakley, a former lobbyist for the trade group of state transportation departments, was not asked to step aside. The governor’s remark came before her office released Oakley’s letter.
Oakley’s resignation comes after months of debate about how to fix South Carolina’s crumbling roads and bridges. Haley was scheduled to lose her power to name a new transportation secretary July 1, leaving the Transportation Department board — appointed by legislators — to choose a new secretary.
But House and Senate budget writers plan to let Haley continue to name the Transportation secretary as part of the state budget that takes effect July 1, likely to pass later this month.
State Rep. Rick Quinn, R-Lexington, said he understood that a change at the top of Transportation Department would come if legislators allowed Haley to keep the authority to appoint a new secretary.
Oakley was overwhelmed with the bureaucracy at the 5,000-employee, $1.6 billion agency, said Quinn, who sponsored the budget amendment to extend Haley’s appointment authority.
“Pretty much every legislator has a story about having a difficult time getting decisions from her,” he said. “And when she made decisions, they were counter-intuitive to the best interests to the state,” including approval of lower priority road projects.
In Lexington County, for example, Quinn expected work on Corley Mill Road, which is busier with a new high school and additional residential construction. But that work has not been done.
“The bureaucracy at DOT was not going in the right direction,” he said. “It’s a dysfunctional agency in need of reform.”
The Transportation Department referred questions about Oakley’s departure Monday to the governor’s office.
The department is funded mostly from the state’s 16.75-cent-a-gallon gas tax and federal 18.4-cent-a-gallon gas tax.
The agency has estimated it needs an added $1.5 billion a year through 2040 to expand, maintain and preserve the state’s highways, bridges and transit system. Others, however, have put the amount needed to repair the state’s road system at far lower — roughly $400 million a year.
Debate during the 2015 legislative session has focused mainly on whether the gas tax should be increased to raise more money for the agency to repair roads and bridges.
However, a gas-tax increase is likely to die in the state Senate this week, where a libertarian-leaning senator is filibustering another proposal in opposition to raising prices at the pump.
State Rep. Gary Simrill, R-York, who chaired a House transportation committee that drew up the road-repair bill now being blocked in the Senate, said Oakley was accommodating. “Secretary Oakley has been very forthright and very helpful.”
Still, Simrill said he had heard frustrations about Oakley. But, he added, “I’m cautious on the frustrations because I think it is symbolic of the structure that we have, more than it is a person that we would have.”
The Transportation Department currently is overseen by a commission appointed by legislators and administered by a secretary appointed by the governor.
“That becomes problematic,” Simrill said. “It’s difficult for anyone in that position.”
Oakley took over the agency after Robert St. Onge resigned after a drunken-driving charge.
She arrived in Columbia after spending nearly 15 years as director of policy and government relations for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.
When Haley appointed Oakley, the Republican governor praised her experience with federal highway and grants programs.
“Everybody came with a different region in mind,” Haley said of the other candidates. “They wanted to help the Pee Dee. They wanted to help the Lowcountry. They wanted to help the Upstate. ... What I didn’t want was someone who was going to continue improving infrastructure (just) in a region of South Carolina.”
At the time of her appointment, Oakley said that working with transportation chiefs across the nation gave her insight into successful fixes.
Oakley has ties to South Carolina with relatives living in the Upstate and a house on Edisto Island, where she and her husband plan to retire.
“I was able with this opportunity to speed up this move to South Carolina, which I am delighted to do,” Oakley said then.