The Colorado Department of Transportation will soon have a new Executive Director. Governor John Hickenlooper has announced Shailen Bhatt - currently Transportation Secretary for the Delaware Department of Transportation - as the new head of the state's transportation agency.
"Shailen not only brings incredible transportation experience to CDOT, he is a known consensus builder who can continue to build the alliances and the transportation system Colorado needs to support our state's economy and people's lives," Hickenlooper said in a statement. "His experience in disaster recovery, transportation planning and innovative project delivery will help build on the successes that Don Hunt has led to improve safety and congestion on our roadways."
While in Delaware, Bhatt helped rebuild roadways after 2012's Hurricane Sandy and managed 13,500 lane miles of roadway. Colorado faced a similar challenge in 2013 with flooding and has 23,000 miles of roadway.
In the immediate short term, Bhatt said he's going to take plenty of notes and listen to what Coloradans have to say.
"Just finding out what they think is working well, what some of the challenges are. So that's first and foremost," Bhatt said. "Some of the intermediate goals going into 2015? A lot of projects are on the go, so making sure we're delivering projects on time and under budget. And I know there's a couple of bigger challenges that will face me once I get through the full confirmation process."
In terms of emerging technology and changes in driving behavior, Bhatt said the entire country, not just Colorado, needs to start thinking in new, innovative ways. Especially, he notes, since technology is advancing so quickly now, it "won't be 15 years before we see bigger changes, it could be five years."
The emerging trend in Denver has seen commuters opting for ways to get around town without getting behind the wheel of a car.
"It's pretty clear that VMT [Vehicle Miles Traveled] peaked in the early 2000s and that people had started driving less," Bhatt said. "Some people thought it was because gas prices were up, but it's a trend now. Millennials and Generation Y, they don't value driving as the older generation has," Bhatt said.
Colorado, like Delaware, is facing a widening funding gap for transportation projects. Bhatt, who reduced that state's transportation agency debt by 40 percent, believes there will be a trade-off between what people what to pay for, and what the agency needs.
But, he said, there's also the question of considering the cost of not undertaking a project.
"Sitting in traffic, exacts a cost on people. So we have to decide what we want out of our transportation system. And if we want more projects, then we have to have a conversation on how we pay for them," he said.
Bhatt will inherit projects including the expansion of U.S. 36 between Boulder and Denver, the reconstruction of I-70 in North Denver, as well as the constant battle of traffic and weather woes on I-70 in the mountains.
Going into 2015, the new director said the agency needs to make data driven decisions, be it using accident data for a safety issue or current or projected traffic data for expansion.
Bhatt is also a proponent of incorporating multimodal systems like biking, rail, or ride sharing programs.
“I'm a big multimodal guy, [in Delaware] we've led a big charge on bicycles. We're now number four in the nation in terms of bicycle friendly states here in Delaware, up from 31 in just a few years. I get multimodalism. But to me, what is the return on investment for these scarce transportation dollars?"
Outgoing CDOT Director Don Hunt will stay on with the department until the end of February to help during the transition period. He will then return to his firm The Antero Company. Bhatt’s first day is tentatively set for February 17.