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Georgia Roads Develop Identity Crisis

With 730 highways, intersections and bridges named to honor individuals, lawmakers call for rules -- and even removal of designations.

March 10, 2003|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

ATLANTA — Three years ago, Georgia state lawmakers paid tribute to U.S. Rep. Cynthia A. McKinney, an Atlanta-area Democrat, in their customary way -- they named a road for her. Then last year her constituents, fed up with McKinney's outspoken style, took a different tack -- they booted her from office.

McKinney lost her seat, but she kept her road.

Today, motorists in De Kalb County travel along Cynthia McKinney Parkway, a nine-mile stretch coursing through the congressional district that turned her out. That incongruity has caught the eye of more than a few passersby, providing a vivid example of the pitfalls of Georgia's pronounced habit of naming its roads and bridges for modern-day political figures -- often before they have left office.

The tradition, which has grown in recent years, has resulted in 730 roads, bridges -- even intersections -- across the state that bear a person's name, thanks in part to an absence of formal rules about who qualifies.

So eager have Georgia officials been to offer highway tributes that some roads carry two or more names, at times along the same portion. State Route 10 carries no fewer than six designations as it meanders from Augusta to Atlanta, including the segment named for McKinney.

But the naming vogue may be near an end. Concerned that the practice has gone too far, state legislators now are calling for tighter controls, such as waiting until people are out of office before they can be considered for such a tribute.

"It's gotten out of hand around here," said state Sen. Joey Brush, a Republican from eastern Georgia who is promoting stricter curbs. "The last term or so, it really seemed to escalate."

The transportation committee in the state House of Representatives, which votes on proposed dedications, imposed new rules last month requiring that someone be out of office at least two years, nationally prominent or deceased before their name graces a portion of the state's 18,906-mile highway system.

"There's some people who think it had gotten excessive and, frankly, had the effect of diminishing the honor that it really should have," said state Rep. Mickey Channell, a Greensboro Democrat who is vice chairman of the transportation panel. "It could have better perspective on someone's career after they've finished their career, if you know what I mean."

Brush's bill, which has passed the Senate, calls for extending the wait in Georgia to five years -- enough time, he says, to ensure against the possibility that a designee later turns out to have been involved in scandal. "I'm surprised it hasn't happened yet," he said.

Rep. Bobby Franklin would go even further. He favors waiting until the person is out of office 25 years or deceased, and scrubbing from all highways any names that don't meet those standards.

Franklin, a Republican from Marietta, outside Atlanta, said the problem is not just the number of road-naming resolutions fluttering from the state Capitol. Too often, he said, the highways are designated for political officeholders, whose names then are posted on Department of Transportation signs.

"That becomes a permanent campaign sign in their district -- a state-sanctioned campaign sign," Franklin said. "Everywhere you go in Georgia, there's a road named after an incumbent."

Until recently, that usually meant a Democratic incumbent. Republicans have only now come into their own in Georgia. Gov. Sonny Perdue, elected in November as the first GOP governor since Reconstruction, is joined by a Republican-controlled Senate.

Franklin said he'd be happy to erase the names of Republicans too until his criteria are met. "I'm an equal-opportunity un-namer," he said.

Exactly who's to blame for the excesses is a matter of debate. Lawmakers used to share naming powers with the Department of Transportation board of directors, which often used its authority to designate roads for its past members, who tended to be anything but household names.

But legislators stripped the board of that authority two years ago amid concerns that too many names were going onto highways and bridges. Officials dedicated 211 roads, bridges and intersections during the six decades until 1990, but added 392 in the following 10 years. An additional 127 were named from 2000-02, more than double the number dedicated in California during that period.

Many designees are obscure transportation officials or local officials and legislators familiar mainly to hometown drivers. So, along with stretches named for well-known Georgia sons, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Jimmy Carter, are those evoking less celebrity, such as the William Lovel Lanier Sr. Highway and Dorothy Felton Interchange.

New limits likely would please transportation planners who bear the cost and effort of putting up signs every time a road is dedicated. The job is more complicated for interstate signs mounted overhead, when the weight of a sign -- thus, the length of the name -- becomes a consideration. Last year, the Department of Transportation spent $122,000 on the sign changes.

And too, there are the roadside dedication ceremonies, which can run $6,000 apiece, said deputy transportation commissioner Harold Linnenkohl.

Linnenkohl said the roads are now cluttered with so many signs -- advertising everything from rest stops to tourist attractions -- that motorists can easily fail to notice one additional name.

"There's so many signs up now, they don't pay attention to them," Linnenkohl said. "That's our big problem now. We've got signs for everything. People want signs up for every itty-bitty thing."

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