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Keeping the state on the road

By Ed Brock

Some people don't appreciate Harold Linnenkohl's work.

Sitting in his office across from the state capitol in Atlanta, Linnenkohl, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Transportation, smiles patiently while reading an e-mail from an unhappy citizen who informs him that his eternal soul is imperiled by his failure to put a traffic light in her neighborhood.

Of course, as Linnenkohl points out in his response, that would be a project for local authorities. Linnenkohl, born in Byron and raised in Forest Park, is responsible for state routes like Ga. Highway 54 that runs through Clayton County, and parts of the federal interstate system that pass through the state.

And since he has to drive on the roads, too, Linnenkohl experiences the same problems of unexpected delays or constant congestion that are the most common complaints he receives.

People can choose to live one place and commute 30 or 40 minutes to work, Linnenkohl said, but what happens when that time goes up to an hour and 30 minutes because of something unexpected?

"That's what really gets under their skin, and I can totally understand it," Linnenkohl said. "It bothers me the same. I get just as frustrated."

Linnenkohl, 56, graduated from Forest Park High School and then went on to get his degree in civil engineering technology form Southern Technical Institute in Marietta in 1968. He started his career with GDOT at that time, working as a civil engineering technologist and supervising asphalt construction in the metro Atlanta and north Georgia area.

In 1969 he joined the U.S. Army and did a tour in Vietnam, returning to GDOT in 1971. After that he steadily worked his way through the ranks, from assistant state bituminous construction engineer to state aid engineer, state aid administrator and executive assistant to the commissioner. In May 2000 he was named deputy commissioner and in September 2003 the Georgia State Transportation Board made him the commissioner.

The department he oversees has 5,800 employees and a $2 billion budget. He could have retired back in 1999, but he keeps going and has no immediate plans to leave.

"I think what keeps me here is the fact that I really feel like, as many problems as we're having out there, I really feel like we're making progress," Linnenkohl said. "I really like the feeling of being able to look back and say 'You know, I was a part of that.'"

There are many things left to accomplish, Linnenkohl said, and he has definite plans for Clayton County.

"We have projects that are just around the corner," Linnenkohl said.

He hopes to extend the "high occupancy vehicles" lanes on Interstate 75 further into Clayton County and perhaps as far as Henry County.

In July GDOT will start acquiring right-of-ways for work on the I-75/ Highway 54 interchange that will include improving the existing interchange and bridge and adding a new bridge that will carry Lee Street over I-75. That interchange sees heavy traffic from shoppers going to Southlake Mall and other retail centers in Morrow.

Construction on that project could begin in 2007.

Also, GDOT is studying plans to improve the intersection with Upper Riverdale Road at the north end of Tara Boulevard. Linnenkohl said Clayton County proposals for that intersection include the possibility of putting either a bridge over Tara Boulevard or a tunnel under it for Upper Riverdale Road traffic.

"That is still in the very early stages of review," Linnenkohl said.

Linnenkohl's parents, Frances and Glenn Linnenkohl, both 86, still live in Forest Park.

She's very proud of her son, Frances Linnenkohl said.

Like the Linnenkohl's other three children, Harold Linnenkohl learned how to drive while going on the family's newspaper delivery route.

"It was fun. The children took their friends with them," Frances Linnenkohl said.

Whether that led to Harold Linnenkohl's interest in building roads she doesn't know, Frances Linnenkohl said, but she remembered he was a very responsible young man even then.

"You could put all your trust in him," Frances Linnenkohl said.

Having a son who is the commissioner of the Georgia Department of Transportation can make you a very popular person sometimes.

"I have called him sometimes when somebody wanted me to call him," said Frances Linnenkohl.

For example, the preacher at their church one time called her and said he hoped to get some help getting the commissioner's ear on some projects near the church. She gave him permission to use her name.

"He told (Harold Linnekohl's) secretary that Mama said I could talk to him," Frances Linnenkohl said. "It worked."

But Harold Linnenkohl said Clayton County's leaders haven't expected any special treatment from him. He travels frequently all around the state for different projects.

"It's a big state," Linnenkohl said.

Linnenkohl lives in Hiram, where he also keeps about 11 alpacas, a llama-like animal he started raising as a potential second business when he was considering retirement previously. Now they're more of a hobby.

He is married with two children and three grandchildren, who are equally aware of their grandfather's high position thanks to his frequent appearances on television.

"I think they see me more on TV than they do in person," Linnenkohl said.