ATLANTA – Jay Roberts' new desk in a midtown high-rise is a long way from his home in Ocilla. But the work that surrounds him couldn't be more familiar.
The South Georgia native has spent the past 13 winters working the House floor at the Capitol, where he recently pushed through a sweeping $1 billion transportation bill aimed at repairing the state’s aging roads and bridges.
Roberts gave up his seat this month when Gov. Nathan Deal offered him the job of planning director at the Georgia Department of Transportation. The former Irwin County legislator replaces Toby Carr, who left late last year to head state government relations for the University of Georgia.
“I feel like there’s a time in everybody’s career when it’s time for you to move on," said Roberts, who ran unopposed for reelection last year, in an interview this week.
The new job fits Roberts, who chaired the House Transportation Committee for the past six years. As planning director, he is now charged with prioritizing transportation projects in Georgia, which has the tenth-largest road infrastructure in the country.
He'll still be visible at the Capitol. But now it's as keeper of the state's transportation improvement program. Projects must find their way into this 406-page document to even be considered for funding.
He will also be responsible for readying projects until money is available, whether from Congress or new state funds.
Roberts’ transportation bill raised gas taxes about 6 cents per gallon. It also added a $5 nightly fee for hotel stays, in addition to other fees. The state will put that money towards the unglamorous work of chipping away at a backlog of resurfacing and bridge replacement projects.
“As I’ve said from the beginning, $1 billion in new revenue doesn’t get you that shining new gazebo and swimming pool,” Roberts said. “We’re fixing the cracks in that old swimming pool, but we’re actually now able to fix those cracks.”
Roberts' job may now revolve around transportation, but his background is rooted in peanuts, cotton and corn.
He started working on the family farm when he was in third grade. He went on to study criminal justice at Valdosta State University, thinking a career as a U.S. Marshall could be in his future.
But it’s his connection to rural Georgia that helped him find his way to the head of the Transportation Committee. House leaders told Roberts someone was needed who would be sensitive to both rural and urban transportation woes.
Roberts established himself as the go-to guy for transportation these past six years. In a statement announcing the appointment, Deal called him "a subject matter expert and a statewide leader on transportation issues” who had earned the trust of his colleagues.
He has done that without losing the confidence of his constituents back home, says Tift County Commission Chairman Grady Thompson.
“I’ve known Jay since he was a little boy,” Thompson said. “He hasn’t changed any. He’s still a South Georgia boy.”
Roberts won’t argue with that. He wore a peanut-themed tie to his first GDOT board meeting. The office he's occupied for about a week is already adorned with antlers and a large mounted buck.
But the 45-year-old, who will split his time between Atlanta and South Georgia, has made significant lifestyle changes since a health scare caused him to miss a legislative day in March. Updates on his condition were announced from the House floor.
“I tell everybody I just wanted to take a little day off,” he joked. “But, in all seriousness, the doctor did get my attention.”
The doctor found some blockage starting to form in his heart. Roberts, among other things, has traded the full spread at breakfast for an apple and a granola bar.
A special election will be held July 14 to fill Roberts' seat. Already two local officials - Ben Hill County Commissioner Scott Downing and Ocilla Mayor Horace Hudgins - have announced their plans to run.
“It’s truly been an honor and a privilege, and it’s one that I’m going to miss,” Roberts said.
Jill Nolin covers the Statehouse for CNHI's Georgia newspapers. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.