Alexander's experience serves Lee County well

Photo by Barry Levine

Photo by Barry Levine

LEESBURG -- Back when the city of Albany was really coming into its own, and going through the growing pains that were common to bustling downtown regions at the time, traffic in the city grew into a major annoyance.

In the early '70s, it wasn't uncommon for traffic on Oglethorpe Boulevard to back up from the Heritage House hotel in the heart of downtown to the sand dunes a few miles away in east Albany.

City leaders decided to bring in Albany's first traffic engineer, and when their search for just the right person stretched into the Augusta area, they started hearing good things about this young Army veteran with an engineering degree who had signed on to work in the east Georgia city while he was still serving at nearby Fort Gordon.

Albany leaders decided to give California native Bob Alexander a shot at developing their new traffic engineering department. It was a decision that paid dividends.

Alexander served the city for 36 years before leaving to take on a new challenge in neighboring Lee County 2 1/2 years ago. During his tenure in Albany, he helped develop a transportation plan that first eliminated most of the downtown traffic congestion and later proved capable of adapting to the development of the Albany Mall and a mass exodus from the once busy downtown and east Albany sectors to the west side of the county.

"I came to Albany and experienced a little culture shock," said Alexander, now a spry 67-year-old who favors work over retirement. "I grew up in Glendale, which is a suburb of Los Angeles, and then I worked around the base in Augusta. It took me a little while to get used to the small-town feel of Albany.

"I'd been surrounded by concrete all my life, and it was a shock to see all that blue sky and green vegetation. I fell in love with the area."

Since being hired away from the city of Albany by former Lee County Administrator Alan Ours to help oversee that county's impressive growth spurt, Alexander has again concentrated on key traffic issues, particularly those that have for years frustrated parents taking their children to and picking them up from school.

"Bob's a very talented guy," Ours, who left Lee County a month ago to take a position in Glynn County, said Friday. "When we talked with him about coming to work in Lee County, it was apparent that his years of experience in Albany would benefit us. He obviously knew the lay of the land, and he had developed relationships with state and area (transportation) officials that would help us."

Alexander's idyllic southern California lifestyle, which included a college tenure at California State University, Long Beach that ended with a bachelor's degree in civil engineering, was interrupted by Uncle Sam when his deferment ran out and he was drafted into the Army.

Alexander went through basic at Fort Ord and then was shipped to Fort Gordon for signal corps training.

"Everyone in our group was training for infantry, but they took the two worst specimens and sent us to Fort Gordon," Alexander jokes. "They taught us crypto ... radio and teletype ... communications. I became a crypto instructor, worked in one of those locked cages that no one could get into, not even commanding officers."

But an Army private didn't make a whole lot of money in the late '60s, so Alexander talked with an "old retired Southern Army colonel" about working with him in Augusta's traffic engineering department.

"After I got my engineering degree, I'd pretty much decided it would not be my career path," Alexander said. "There were engineers driving taxicabs in southern California, so when I got out of the Army (in 1969) I decided to stay on a while in Augusta."

Not too much later the city of Albany came calling.

"It was exciting to set up my own department from scratch," Alexander said. "We were able to do some good things over the years."

Like unsnarling the massive downtown traffic jams that had become common ... and putting together the design and funding for the city's traffic-reducing bypass ... and building a fourth bridge over the Flint River ... and coming up with a plan to account for the traffic shift to the county's west side ... and setting up the nation's first computerized traffic signal system.

"We were fortunate that the first SPLOST (special-purpose local-option sales tax) came along at a time when we were awarded considerable funds from the state Department of Transportation," Alexander said. "There was a period when we did $60 million worth of road projects -- and remember, this was in the '70s -- that ended up having a big impact on Albany.

"Of course, we did struggle with the signal system when we first put it in. Some of the software was bad, and the controllers were defective. It took us a couple of years to get the bugs worked out."

Alexander showed no initial interest in a planning position that opened in Lee County, but when a development services post also was vacated and the planning job still hadn't been filled, Ours went to the Lee County Commission and asked if they might combine the two posts to make one more marketable position.

"When we advertised the job, we said we'd prefer someone with a background in engineering," Ours said. "When Mr. Alexander applied, it was obvious that he was what the county needed.

"He helped put together a transportation master plan, and he's been instrumental in developing and pushing some of the projects that are already having an impact on the community."

Tops on Alexanders' transportation list for Lee County were developing a truck route along Robert B. Lee Drive, lessening heavy morning and afternoon traffic in the downtown square and designing a city bypass. All projects will help alleviate traffic tie-ups that are the product of filling a city with a population of 2,500 with more than 10,000 school children and parents each day.

"Bob brought a wealth of knowledge to Lee County," Commission Chairman Ed Duffy said. "He's worked very well with DOT officials in developing road projects that have been instrumental in enhancing the traffic flow around the city of Leesburg in a positive way.

"Bob oversees our code enforcement, stormwater development, zoning and code administration staff, he directs the planning commission and works with officials in Smithville and Leesburg. He's been instrumental in helping us address some of our major issues."

Alexander, who was twice overlooked for the Albany city manager position, said he's thinking about applying for Ours' old job as Lee's administrator.

"Don't get me wrong, I'm happy doing what I'm doing," he said. "But that job, well, it's one of those things I have on my bucket list. I just feel like there are so many areas where I can contribute. But I'll respect the decision of the commission; I'm always a team player."

In a twist of irony, Ours said despite his overwhelming respect for Alexander, he will not go on record as recommending Alexander for the administrator job.

"Bob expressed to me his interest in that position, and he asked me for a recommendation," Ours said. "I told him what I'm telling you: Out of respect for him and what he means to the county, I think the Board of Commissioners should look at how their personnel best serve Lee County.

"I think it will be easier to find an individual to fill the administrator position than it would be to find someone who can do what Bob does for the county. As much as I understand his desire (to be administrator), I think Bob would best serve the county by remaining director of Planning and Engineering."

No matter what decision commissioners eventually make, Alexander will no doubt continue to be a big part of the county hierarchy for ... well, for as long as he still likes his job.

"I still enjoy coming to work in the morning," he said. "There are other things that I enjoy doing (tennis, sailing, spending time with his and wife Anita's four children and 11 grandchildren), but sometimes when you spend a lot of time with a particular hobby it becomes like work.

"I'm not ready to retire; there are still lots of things I think I can do here to make this county better. This is a whole lot more fun than going fishing every day."