HELENA — State Transportation Director Jim Lynch resigned Thursday, saying he wants time to decide whether to run for governor in 2012 or re-enter the private sector.
Gov. Brian Schweitzer accepted Lynch's resignation and appointed Tim Reardon, the Transportation Department's chief legal counsel, to succeed Lynch for remainder of the administration, which ends in early January 2013. Reardon's salary will remain at his current level of $99,984 a year.
The sudden change took place immediately.
A former Kalispell contractor and one-time state Senate candidate, Lynch had headed the Transportation Department from the start of the Schweitzer administration in January 2005.
Lynch, 57, has been mentioned at times as a possible Democratic candidate for governor in 2012, but he declined to tip his hand Thursday.
So far, state Sen. Larry Jent of Bozeman is the only announced Democrat running for governor, although Attorney General Steve Bullock is expected to jump into the race after Labor Day. Five Republicans are actively campaigning for the office.
"It gives me an opportunity to consider the next paths that lay ahead of me and what I can do either in the private side or the public side to serve the people of Montana," Lynch said an interview. "Those are opportunities that I couldn't explore as MDT director."
Pressed about a potential candidacy for governor, Lynch didn't close the door on that option.
"I've never been able to explore, look at it or discuss it," he said of running for governor. "Now I can look at all paths before me. As a state employee, that question was asked of me a lot. That put state employees in uncomfortable positions."
Lynch said he's most proud of the department's ability to get projects delivered on time and put more money aside for highway and bridge maintenance and repairs, without having to raise the state fuel tax. Department employees deserve a lot of the credit, he said
When he took over as Transportation director, Lynch said the department made about $240 million a year in contractor payments for highway and bridge projects. That spending will increase to $392 million for the fiscal year that began July 1 and reach $402 million in the following year.
In addition, the department put out $215 million in transportation projects with federal stimulus money approved in 2009.
In the meantime, he said, he reduced overtime at the department and trimmed the number of employees to fewer than 2,000, 53 fewer than were there when he became director.
"It was great working with Gov. Schweitzer," he said. "We were able to work together and deliver a great program."
Schweitzer thanked Lynch for his service and commitment to the state.
"I wish him well as he moves back to the private sector," the governor said. "Jim was always one of the first people on the scene to any road incident. He was always willing to lend a hand in our towns and communities with snow removal or gravel roads and was a great advocate for highway safety."
Lynch drew fire from environmental groups and Missoula County commissioners who challenged the department's environmental assessment of Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil's plan to ship massive processing equipment through parts of Montana into Alberta for use in the tar sands fields there.
Last month, District Judge Ray Dayton of Anaconda partially granted a preliminary injunction against the department and company. He found the department erred in approving the Imperial Oil/Exxon Mobil's plan to haul 200 megaloads of processing equipment from Idaho to the Kearl Oil Sands in Alberta via U.S. Highways 12 and 200 and other two-lane roads in Montana, the Associated Press reported then.
Dayton ruled that the Transportation Department had violated the Montana Environmental Policy Act by approving an environmental assessment he deemed insufficient to evaluate the project.
Lynch said that controversy had nothing to do with his decision to resign.
As for Reardon, Schweitzer said, "I am honored to have Tim on the team as director of the Department of Transportation. I have every confidence in his ability and know he will serve the people of Montana well."
Reardon, raised in Anaconda, has been chief legal counsel for the Transportation Department since mid-1994. He previously was appointed state workers' compensation judge by Gov. Ted Schwinden in 1981 and served in that post for more than a decade.
Reardon also previously worked as an attorney in the division of workers' compensation and for the Department of Public Health and Human Services.
He has a bachelor's degree from Carroll College and a juris doctorate from the University of Montana law school.
Reardon is married and has four children and four grandchildren.