- Associated Press - Friday, January 31, 2014

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - The director of South Carolina’s transportation department resigned Friday following a drunken-driving arrest.

Robert St. Onge resigned, effective immediately, in a letter obtained by The Associated Press. He cited personal reasons. Gov. Nikki Haley notified legislative leaders in a separate letter that Christy Hall, deputy secretary of finance, will be acting secretary until she finds a permanent replacement.

“General St. Onge is a good man with a lifetime of service to his country, and more recently, our state. That said, we have a no-tolerance policy for our state agency directors, and so General St. Onge has resigned as secretary of transportation,” said Haley spokesman Doug Mayer. “The governor thanks him for his work fixing the serious fiscal issues he inherited at the Department of Transportation - the state is better off because of his service.”

Highway Patrol Sgt. Bob Beres said St. Onge was stopped for erratic driving about 8 a.m. Friday on Interstate 20, near Interstate 26. After failing a roadside sobriety test, St. Onge was arrested and taken to the Lexington County jail, where a breath test registered his blood-alcohol level at 0.20 percent, Beres said. That’s more than twice the legal threshold of 0.08 percent.

The sheriff’s department says St. Onge was released from jail Friday afternoon on his own recognizance.

No one answered the phone Friday at his home, and messages were not immediately returned. It was not immediately clear if St. Onge had an attorney.

Haley named the retired Army major general to lead the transportation department in January 2011, saying she wanted someone in the position whose decisions could not be bought or swayed. The 66-year-old Lexington resident had retired in 2003 after 34 years in the Army. From 2001 to 2003, he was deputy assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs. He had previously been commanding general of the 24th infantry division at Fort Riley in Kansas, policy director for the Army’s chief of staff and commandant at West Point. Before joining Haley’s administration, he was an executive at defense contractor L-3 Communications.

St. Onge often said his job was to “manage the decline of the state highway system.” He had to strike a balance, asking legislators for more money to fix roads without suggesting where the money should come from. Haley has repeatedly vowed to veto any bill that increases the state’s 16-cents-per-gallon gas tax, unchanged since 1987.

According to the Department of Transportation, the state needs an additional $1.5 billion yearly over the next 20 years just to bring roads and bridges to good condition. A law passed last year could generate up to $1 billion over a decade for roadwork, through a combination of state and federal money plus borrowing.

St. Onge has said he welcomed any bit of money to repair the system.

He actually had two bosses: Haley and the DOT commission. A 2007 law restructuring the agency put it in the governor’s Cabinet and gave oversight to a board elected by legislators. Haley has asked legislators to eliminate the commission, saying the entire department shouldn’t answer to two bosses. But that effort died.

St. Onge gave the agency an internal overhaul in his first year on the job, after the department fell behind on its bills. Road builders complained that summer they weren’t getting paid for months. St. Onge said then the agency had started too many projects without balancing its cash flow. His reforms included weekly analysis meetings and hiring a chief financial officer and chief procurement officer. He also set a new standard of paying bills within 30 calendar days, rather than 30 business days, which he said had caused confusion.

A $52 million advance from the Federal Highway Administration allowed the agency to catch up in August 2011. It represented an advance of 12 months’ worth of federal gas tax money that was due the state anyway. The agency also delayed some road work as it resolved the cash flow issue.

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