Creating a State DOT That's Not 'Trapped in the 20th Century’

Denver, Colorado during evening rush hour in December 2015.

Denver, Colorado during evening rush hour in December 2015. Shutterstock / By Sean Xu

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

Colorado's departing transportation chief offers some thoughts on what it takes.

The way Shailen Bhatt describes it, the current age is a pivotal one for state transportation agencies.

“DOTs have been building and repairing roads and bridges for 100 years,” said Bhatt, who recently stepped down as executive director of the Colorado Department of Transportation.

“And now we’re rapidly moving into this era of disruptive technology,” he continued. “How do you take an agency with 3,000 employees and a billion-five budget and make the necessary structural changes so that agency isn’t trapped in the 20th century?”

Bhatt has a reputation for embracing new technology—like self-driving vehicles and systems to improve road safety and the flow of traffic. Gov. John Hickenlooper appointed him to lead CDOT in 2015.

His choice to depart was announced in late October. It comes as Hickenlooper, who is term-limited, has about a year left in office. Bhatt has taken a job as president and CEO of the Intelligent Transportation Society of America. Michael Lewis, previously CDOT's deputy executive director and chief operating officer, has taken over the top spot at the agency.

Route Fifty spoke with Bhatt last week to get his perspective on his time at CDOT.

Asked about how transportation departments might avoid getting “trapped in the 20th century,” one of the areas Bhatt highlighted is agency culture and allowing staff to take calculated risks.

Bhatt recounted conversations with tech industry leaders who encourage employees to take chances on projects that might not work out. To fail, but to fail quickly. “If you have an idea, throw some money at it, but if it’s not working, don’t waste a bunch of money,” he added.

Prior to taking the post in Colorado, Bhatt served as a transportation official in Delaware and Kentucky and as an associate administrator at the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration during former President Obama’s first term.

“Nobody has ever told me in the public sector to fail quickly, or slowly,” Bhatt said.

“That creates a culture of safety and it stifles innovation. And this is not a time or place in history for us to be stifling innovation. We need to be encouraging appropriate risk-taking.”

During Bhatt’s tenure at CDOT, the agency was involved in some cutting edge transportation ventures.

For instance, the state announced a partnership last month with a company called Arrivo to work toward building a “hyperloop-inspired infrastructure and vehicle system” in the Denver region. The envisioned project would feature an “enclosed, electromagnetic superhighway” that would rely on “magnetic levitation" to make vehicles float and electric power to move them forward.

And, in 2016, Colorado DOT worked with the Uber-owned self-driving truckmaker, Otto, as one of the company’s big rigs traveled on highways in the state to complete a commercial beer delivery.

But these types of efforts have taken place as Colorado has struggled to come up with necessary funding to maintain and upgrade roads.

Bhatt said people ask him all the time why traffic congestion in parts of the state is so bad.

“It’s because we have a system that was designed in the fifties, built in the sixties, for a population that in the 1980s was three million,” he said of the state’s highway network. “We’re at six million people today, and we’re going to eight million people in the next 20 years.”

In 1991, according to Bhatt, when there were closer to three million people in Colorado, the state was spending roughly $122 per-resident on transportation. After taking into account inflation and population growth, he said that figure is currently closer to $68 per person.

A project inventory that Colorado DOT developed late last year, and early this year, shows the state has more than $9 billion in funding needs for 125 highway projects.

“To me, the right thing to do is to increase revenue,” said Bhatt. He added that he’s “agnostic” about what source that revenue comes from—a gas tax or sales tax for example.

In terms of finding a balance between spending on basic transportation needs and projects involving new technology, Bhatt said he does not want to see spending discussions devolve into battles over traditional versus “new, smart infrastructure.”

“I hated having that discussion when we would say: ‘let’s spend $10 million a year on RoadX’ and folks would say: ‘you know how much asphalt $10 million buys?’” he added.

RoadX is a Colorado DOT initiative focused on using new technology to solve infrastructure-related problems and on laying the groundwork for new transportation systems, including self-driving cars.

Bhatt says that decisions about whether to put money toward tech investments or paving and widening roads should come down to the costs and benefits and return on investment for each option.

He noted, for example, that a forthcoming “intelligent ramp metering” project to regulate the flow of traffic entering a stretch of Interstate 25 would cost about $8 million.

But, based on results achieved with the technology in Australia, Bhatt believes it will improve the movement of traffic on the segment of interstate in a way that will be equivalent to adding a lane. Widening the highway, he said, would cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

Arrivo, he said, is talking about possibly moving 20,000 vehicles per hour, at speeds of upwards of 200 miles per hour, in areas where highway lanes now accommodate 2,000 to 3,000 vehicles per hour.

“Is it a pipe dream? You know, potentially,” Bhatt said as he discussed the Arrivo project. “But there’s also potential for it to be a game changer. And that’s a big deal.” He added: “If I can, in a low-cost way, encourage innovation, I want to try take to that chance.”

Bill Lucia is a Senior Reporter for Government Executive's Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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