Community connection: Allen proud of role in road projects

Brian Allen had ambitions of becoming a lawyer before he "fell in love with local government." While he isn't an engineer, Allen said his fascination with mobility and love for driving help him in his job as Gwinnett's transportation director.

Senior Writer Camie Young recently sat down with Allen to talk about his commute, his kids and some of his favorite places to cruise.

CY: How did you get to work this morning? What kind of car do you drive?

BA: I have a county Ford Taurus, a county-issued vehicle. It's a 2005 white Ford Taurus with government tags. (laughs)

CY: Do you have a family car?

BA: Technically, I guess I have four family cars. I don't know if you know about my family. I've been married for almost 25 years. My wife (Pam) is a schoolteacher. I have a 23-year-old son (Sam), who's married (to Katie) and has a 10-month-old daughter (Lauren). ... I have a 20-year-old daughter (Beth) and a 14-year-old son (David) who just started ninth grade. Between all of us, I think we have four vehicles.

CY: Do you have to drive a long way to work?

BA: About 23 miles from my home in Newton County.

CY: So you get a commute in there. Do you relate to commuters?

BA: Absolutely. My route typically takes me up (Ga.) 20 through the Grayson community, and it's been very helpful to me to be able to gauge the progress on that. ... I don't try to take other routes away from 20. Usually, I'll sit in the traffic. I can relate to people on 20 and the traffic that people usually have to deal with. And I can relate to the construction traffic that's out there now.

CY: What is your favorite place to drive?

BA: I have always enjoyed driving. ... I grew up enjoying what we called riding around. We did that a lot a lot while I was growing up. Cruising, that's what they called it in some areas, I suppose. I've always enjoyed that.

Some of my favorite drives ... We've got everything in Georgia. We've got mountains, we've got beautiful scenery in the fall with the leaves in the mountains. I'm very partial to the Georgia coast and enjoy going there. ... I love the farmland in south Georgia. I love to see the wooded areas in the Piedmont. I enjoy driving, from time to time, even through Atlanta. I don't necessarily enjoy that during the commuter rush times, but probably (Interstate) 285 would be my least favorite place to drive. (laughter) Rarely is 285 ever an enjoyable place to drive.

CY: You're not an engineer, right?

BA: No, I'm not an engineer. I was a political science major. My degree is from Georgia. ... I actually started in county government on July 1, 25 years ago. I started on July 1, 1982, in my home county, Newton County.

At that time I was the first zoning administrator Newton County had. I worked with the building inspections and zoning offices and did that for a few years.

Then I was promoted to what was called the executive assistant, which was effectively the county administrator. I worked directly with the chairman of the Board of Commissioners of Newton County. I worked there until 1995, and that's when I came to Gwinnett. ... At the time Wayne Hill and Charlotte Nash - Wayne Hill was the commission chairman and Charlotte was the county administrator - asked me if I would be willing to come to DOT. ... We have a lot of very good professional engineers on our staff, we did then and we do now. So my role was to come and be a manager and an administrator and not necessarily a technical person, although I've been accused by a lot of people of sounding like an engineer. I don't think that was meant to be a compliment. (laughter)

CY: Have you enjoyed it?

BA: I have thoroughly enjoyed it. Obviously, there are days that it's frustrating like with any job. But I think the ability to go home at the end of the day think - this really sounds corny to say this, but - if we are positively affecting the lives of the citizens of this county, then to me that's very satisfying. That's something that I enjoy.

The citizens have been extremely good to us in allowing us to use the special purpose local option sales tax. Obviously, our Board of Commissioners have said we want us to do projects. This board has particularly said to get 'em started and get 'em moving, and it should be what we are all about in government. ... I know the traffic issues are probably some of the most important issues on the minds of our citizens. There's no doubt about that; we hear that constantly. We're here to try to make a difference.

That can be frustrating, but it can also be satisfying.

CY: What was your dream when you were majoring in political science?

BA: Wow. I guess I had lots of dreams. ... When I was majoring in political science, I actually have a minor in Russian. I took two years of Russian, both language and culture. It's gotten pretty rusty over the past 29 years or so. I don't know that I'd be able to communicate very well now.

I had thoughts of law school. ... I've always enjoyed the academic. I was looking just this weekend, I find some old papers from college, and it was a paper I'd written in a political theory class. ... To be honest with you, and this sounds really corny, but I kind of fell in love with local government then. I really like local government. I guess it's where the rubber meets the road.

Thomas Jefferson, one of my favorite political philosophers, was once quoted as saying, "least governed is best governed." And when you come right down to it, local government is the most direct tie to the people. It's what affects most people's lives on a day-to-day basis.

CY: Do you travel a lot? Did you get to go to Russia?

BA: No, never been to Russia. The only time I've ever been out of the country, I've been over the border to both Mexico and Canada and that's it. I've never been overseas, but I'd like to do that sometime.

I absolutely love to travel. I've also realized the things I've said about Georgia are also true about this country. It's a beautiful country. I enjoy going to the West Coast, I enjoy going to the Northeast, to Florida.

CY: Is it always by car?

BA: No, I enjoy flying. I've never taken a train trip, so I can't say that's a favorite mode of travel. I've heard mixed opinions about that.

If I go to other cities for conferences or either things for business or pleasure, one of the things I always enjoy doing is seeing how their transportation system works. I'll usually ride the transportation they do.

My family has taken a couple of trips to Washington, D.C., and we always buy a Metro pass when we're there and use the subways to get around. I've been to New York City once, and I enjoyed riding the Long Island Railroad and the Metro North rail line to get around.

To me, transportation has always been a fascination of mine because it's truly about mobility. ... The vehicle is kind of something that most of us in the South grow up (on), but there are other ways of transportation as well, and when you go to other places in the country, you can see how they work, and sometimes how they don't work, too. (laughter)

CY: Have you incorporated any of that into Gwinnett?

BA: Well, I think it's all a learning experience. One of the things I've been interested in over the past few years is how do you go about funding and financing infrastructure, knowing that you really can't depend on federal dollars increasing. There are needs statewide, but you have other innovative needs, too. It's not just a taxpayer-funded system anymore. You've got to figure out ways to use the private sector. ... We, in Gwinnett County, know we've got to make improvements to our roadway system. We've got to add capacity. We've got to build new roads. We can't avoid that.

We can't do it all just by building new roads or widening roads. We have to look at how we connect to the region and other parts of the country, whether that's with commuter rail or heavy rail or other options that may come up in the future. We've got to look at that.

So, have we brought any of it home? When we first started our bus system back in 2001, I did travel through a couple of communities before we started that. I went to Seattle and Vancouver, San Francisco, New York City, Salt Lake City and observed how they connected their system.

Obviously, our need here has been and continues to be as an express commuter system. That's been the backbone of our bus system and will continue to be. ... It helps get people out of cars, which helps some with capacity. It doesn't solve the capacity issue by itself.

One of the things that really impressed me in Vancouver is, Vancouver is on a bay, so there is a big ferry that goes across the bay that carries, I don't know, 300 or 400 people. They have their bus system timed to the point that, just before the ferry boarded, 20 to 30 buses came to that location. ... So somebody doesn't have to wait on a bus here, then just miss the train and have to wait another 30 minutes for a train. Our system is a work in progress in that.

CY: Is there any particular project you are most looking forward to having done?

BA: Oh yeah, certainly. Probably right now, it's the Sugarloaf Parkway extension. That one, the board has committed to, the staff and consultants have committed to. That's one of the things I think can really make a big difference in connectivity between (Ga.) 20 and (Ga.) 316.

There are a couple of others I'm really looking forward to seeing finishing: (Interstate) 85 and 316, and that one's making great progress; 20, and not just because I drive in through there but because that's been such a need for such a long time, not only the piece south of Lawrenceville but also the piece from Peachtree Industrial to the Chattahoochee River; McGinnis Ferry extension. There are lots of them.

Right now, you can look at (Ga.) 324 that we're doing. We're four-laning that road and that will certainly be a great project to get finished.

The widening of (Ga.) 120, actually the state's got the contract, but we were very involved in buying right of way.

So any number of those projects. The 316/85 intersection, particularly.

I'll have been DOT director 11 years in September, and one of the first meetings I had as DOT director was with the state DOT about that project. It's been a long-term project. I've really been involved with the evolution of that project. ... That one will give me a certain sense of pride, not because I've been a key player in it but because it's been part of my whole career here. It will impact a lot of people.