Almost half a century ago, after he'd gotten home from the Korean War, Tom Coleman found himself selling chemical fertilizer to the farmers of south Georgia. Day in and day out, he drove miles of remote two- lane blacktop and jounced along dirt lanes, getting to know the region's farms and small towns. Then, after he set up shop as a building contractor, he covered the same territory, looking for people who'd hire him. "I did that for years, starting early Monday morning until late Friday night," he recalls. "I must have driven every road in central and south Georgia."

Coleman went on to a career in politics as an urban legislator, first on the Savannah city council, then the Chatham County commission, and finally as a state senator. But now, at the age of 71, he is finding those early views of rural Georgia through the windshield extremely useful. Retired from elective office, Coleman has been tapped by Democratic Governor Roy Barnes as the state's new commissioner of transportation.

The move helps Barnes out of a somewhat difficult situation. Georgia's federal road-building money has been frozen since 1998 due to poor air quality in the Atlanta region, and Barnes has made getting a grip on congestion and suburban road-building a cornerstone of his administration. He created the new Georgia Regional Transportation Authority (GRTA), to exert more state control on development patterns, limit highway expansion, and promote mass transit in metropolitan Atlanta. But Coleman's predecessor, a Gwinnett County developer and planning official named Wayne Shackelford, was known primarily as a road builder, which also describes most members of the board that oversees the Department of Transportation.

Barnes's challenge was to find a new DOT commissioner acceptable to the board--which is elected by the legislature and has final say over the commissioner--but also amenable to his own smart-growth, pro- transit priorities. "The DOT board was completely committed to a program of more and more asphalt in metro Atlanta," says Neill Herring, the Sierra Club's statehouse lobbyist. "The governor had to pick someone palatable to that board."

In that regard, Coleman is just the ticket. He spent a good bit of his time in the state Senate chairing the transportation committee, and in that post was an enthusiastic supporter of money for road projects. As the first DOT commissioner in a quarter century from outside metropolitan Atlanta, he has the potential to garner outstate backing. On the other hand, he is well acquainted with Atlanta's gridlock and the governor's determination to deal with it. "He understands the problems of getting into and out of Atlanta, and of getting around in the Atlanta region," says Terry Coleman, chairman of Georgia's House Appropriations Committee (and no relation to Tom Coleman). "And he understands the problems in other regions.

Coleman also is aware that he steps into his new post at a time of uncertainty. The creation of GRTA essentially stripped DOT of its monopoly on transportation decision making, at least in the Atlanta region. But Coleman downplays the potential for any tension between his department and the new state agency. "I see us remaining as the people who are going to carry out the planning and do the construction," he says, choosing his words carefully.

One thing that's all but certain is that Coleman will have to shift some of DOT's $1.5 billion budget away from highways and toward transit projects. He admits to a little doubt about the benefits of some of these projects, but he makes clear his pragmatic willingness to move in the governor's direction. "I'm not convinced that `If you build it they will come," he says, "that when you build mass transit anybody's going to show up. But there's a lot of people smarter than I who say, `Oh yes, they'll come.' So I just hope they do, because I don't have a better solution."