Montana Department of Transportation Director Jim Lynch abruptly resigned Thursday after 6 1/2 years as head of the agency.
Gov. Brian Schweitzer appointed Lynch shortly after taking office in January 2005.
Lynch said he gave his resignation letter to Schweitzer Thursday morning. The three-sentence letter said little, only that Lynch decided to resign to "pursue other opportunities."
Schweitzer appointed the department's chief legal counsel, Tim Reardon, to take over as director effective immediately.
"The time was always going to come," Lynch said in an interview Thursday. "When you work for the governor there always comes that time when you can leave, and when it is a good time to leave."
Lynch said he wasn't able to make plans for life after his term as director while still serving in that role.
"There were a lot of questions of me while I was director about what I was going to do next. You can't answer those, and you can talk about them, and you can't plan them while you're still a state employee," Lynch said.
Lynch, a former Kalispell businessman, is rumored to be considering a run for governor. Lynch didn't close the door on that possibility.
"I think this gives me an opportunity to evaluate (a possible gubernatorial campaign) and evaluate what opportunities are out there both in the public and private sector," Lynch said. "I'm just going to take a deep breath and sit back and take my time. I'm not in a hurry to make any decisions one way or the other."
In an e-mail press release announcing the resignation Schweitzer thanked Lynch for his "service and commitment to the state and the people of Montana."
“I wish him well as he moves back to the private sector," Schweitzer 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.”
Schweitzer did not comment on why Lynch resigned.
MDT has come under scrutiny over the past year for the agency's handling of ExxonMobil's controversial proposal to haul hundreds of massive Korean-built tar sands processing modules from Lewistown, Idaho, along the Rocky Mountain Front and on to the Kearl oil fields in northern Alberta.
Lynch told the Interim Revenue and Transportation Committee in a 2009 hearing that the company was proposing a "permanent high and wide corridor" across the state to service the Canadian tar sands. Lynch later backed off that statement saying that current project is a one-time only proposal.
Critics of the project say MDT failed to adequately study the potential cultural, environmental and economic impacts of such a project.
Last month District Judge Ray Dayton of Anaconda upheld a request by Missoula County and three conservation groups to stop Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil from transporting the megaloads through the state.
Lynch said the Kearl Module Transportation Project had nothing to do with his decision to resign.
"That's what's nice about Montana, we have the (Montana Environmental Policy Act) process in place to deal with these kinds of projects," Lynch said. "That issue will continued to be played out and it won't be over anytime soon, but that's just one of many aspects that we deal with at MDT."
Lynch said this is a "great time" for him to leave the department.
"There was always going to have to be a time that I have to walk away," Lynch said. "We're delivering a great program. We're sound, we have a fund balance in our program and a great staff at MDT that work hard for the people of Montana."
Reardon, an Anaconda native, has been MDT's chief legal counsel since June 1994.
Gov. Ted Schwinden in 1981 appointed Reardon to serve as a workers' compensation judge, a position he held for 10 years. Prior to that appointment Reardon worked as an attorney in the division of workers compensation and worked in the Department of Health and Environmental Sciences. He received his bachelor’s degree from Carroll College and his juris doctorate from the University of Montana.
Reardon will continue to make $99,984, the same salary he is currently making. Reardon is married and has four kids and four grandkids.
“I am honored to have Tim on the team as the director of the Department of Transportation,” Schweitzer said. “I have every confidence in his ability and know he will serve the people of Montana well.”