FHWA Administrator Victor Mendez talks to Editor-in-Chief John Latta
Victor Mendez is Administrator of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), overseeing the agency and advising the Administration on strategic initiatives and policy. He launched FHWA’s Every Day Counts (EDC) initiative in November 2009 to focus on three key factors – shortening project delivery, accelerating technology and innovation deployment, and protecting the environment. EDC is now in its second round. Mendez is a former Director of the Arizona Department of Transportation and former president of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO). He chaired AASHTO’s Standing Committee on Research, the Operations Council of the Standing Committee on Highways, and the oversight group for the Transportation Research Board (TRB) Long-Term Pavement Performance program. Mendez has a Bachelor’s Degree in Civil Engineering from the University of Texas at El Paso and an MBA from Arizona State University.
Q Looking ahead, what is the future of Every Day Counts?
A Our long-term goal was to create a culture of innovation, if you will, within the transportation industry. Once you create that culture, it will outlast any state DOT director or administration, and that was the goal. The current brand of Every Day Counts may not survive, but the spirit of innovation will last and the people who come to work each and every day in our industry will find ways to innovate the business.
Q How did the existing culture, with both government agencies and contractors, come about?
A Our world changes and the environment changes very quickly today. We construct roadways today very differently than we did back in the 1950s. I think the fast pace requires us to really ramp up our innovation approach and how we inculcate this within the industry. That means you have to engage everybody at every level by asking people to continuously look at things differently and more creatively to get things done.
Q Is there a bureaucratic function that builds up over time that leads to inefficiency that you can address?
A Yes. I’ll give you a good example. Let’s say the topic is traffic signals. Why do you have to approve every traffic signal? Let’s say a municipallity is going to install ten new traffic signals. Why do you need ten different environmental documents? They are actually very simple. They could be installed under an agreement that says if certain criteria are met, they are approved. Then you can just check them off. You sign it and put it in the file and you’re done. Part of EDC is just implementing strategies that will cut through bureaucracy. In today’s world how can we justify taking 14 years on average to deliver a major project? If you think about it, 14, that’s longer than it takes somebody to go from grade school to high school, plus two years in college.
Q Will the MAP-21 reforms designed to cut that time get done?
A Yes, well, speeding up change will never end. I think that will always be a demand from the general public and the political arena. So if we’re actually able to cut our project delivery time by 50 percent, at some point someone’s going to be asking, “Why does it take seven years? That’s way too long.”
Q So innovation is not just a thinking project, it’s part of work organization and problem solving?
A Absolutely. For example, we are looking at what we call intersection and interchange geometrics. Most of us are used to diamond interchanges, so we looked at different ways to deal with intersections. Diverging diamond interchanges were already in use in Europe. We didn’t need to invent it, only implement it, and it’s been very successful.
Q But the promotion of innovation means actively challenging the way things are done now.
A Yes. I think part of innovation is creating the environment that allows everybody to step back and think through the problem and bring forth a different solution without feeling threatened. You have to create that environment that says, “Folks, it’s okay to think differently. Bring forth a solution and we’ll try it.” If you happen to fail, its okay because that’s what invention and innovation are all about. You just need to manage risk and manage the expectation within an environment that allows you to take that risk.
Q Do you also have a willingness to look at changes in established processes, for DOTs to look into ideas that have been off the table?
A We simply provided the venue for support. If in your state there are ideas FHWA proposes that work for you, we want to work with you to make them successful.
Q You have been very proactive at telling the states to go ahead and adopt innovations.
A Absolutely. We are here to help state and local agencies adopt new innovations to provide better transportation faster. Under round two of EDC, we’re implementing 13 new ideas. The EDC strategies come from the states, and we choose to focus on the top ideas that we can share nationwide to make the biggest impact. However, not all ideas can be used in every state or city – we realize that. The states pick and choose which strategies work best for them at this point in time based on their needs and resources. I think the key factor here is that this is what we’re calling the state-driven approach.
Q You’ll have different state reactions.
A Absolutely. One thing that I’ve been very clear about is that participation in the EDC initiative is voluntary. If I were to hear that a state didn’t want to participate, I’d certainly give them a call, but that hasn’t been the case at all. We all have to do more with less these days and be smarter, better, faster. All agencies are the same in that way and that will continue. I’m proud to say every state has participated in EDC.
Q What about design/build?
A We have been promoting design-build very strongly through EDC. Design-build contracting, an accelerated project delivery method that combines the design and construction phases in one contract, has been used on 196 projects. The North Carolina Department of Transportation used it to replace seven bridges in 74 days on Ocracoke Island – that is real progress.
Q You’ve had experience before with design/build.
A Yes. In Arizona we started with design-build more than a decade ago. The industry was unsure, ADOT had never done it before, and some of the state legislators were not comfortable, so we started with a pilot program. We asked for the opportunity, and if it didn’t work, we’d come back and modify it. ADOT successfully used design build on two major projects in the Phoenix area, and everyone saw how fast and efficiently they were completed. Traffic never slowed down.
Q We saw in years leading up to MAP-21 that the public was not broadly aware of how transportation infrastructure was funded or how it worked.
A The things that we build are visible. I think it’s really, really important for the public to see these things actually happening. There are a lot of Every Day Counts strategies that are included in MAP-21. Congress didn’t just decide one day to include strategies like the Construction Manager/General Contractor (CMGC) process. They didn’t just think it up. They are seeing what the industry is doing and what FHWA is doing within USDOT. So we know EDC left an imprint.
Q What are the issues that you see as the most important right now?
A Our highest priority at FHWA/USDOT is safety. Setting other priorities depends on where you sit. I believe they’re all equally important. You have to deal with the sustainability issue, the environmental issue, mobility (none of us wants to get stuck in traffic) and the need to move freight nationally is addressed in MAP-21.
A (laughs) Yeah, funding’s a big issue.
Q Your view of MAP-21?
A There is never a perfect law. But this law actually did provide us with what we believe are transformative policies. Is it perfect, is everybody happy? Of course not. The big question is did we fully address the funding issue? The answer is no. But Congress did support the innovative reform approaches like the TIFIA program where they see real benefits. The TIFIA program was bumped up dramatically, funded close to $2 billion over two years in MAP-21 when it was only $122 million per year previously. It is a good program, but again it is a loan program not a grant program, so states are going to have to pay the money back.
Q You’re suggesting that the more you can show people this is where your money is going, the more they may be willing to give you?
A Sure. I’m all for accountability and if we’re not being held accountable or not wisely using the funding, then I can understand the public saying, “You’ve got to do better and until you do, we can’t help you.” And that’s why it’s important for all of us within the industry to continue exploring ways to innovate our industry.
Q There was some criticism, heard a lot during the SAFETEA-LU extensions, that “we used to” have the world’s best transportation system and “we were” world leaders.
A Let me just say, I’m not ready to concede our leadership. Okay? We still have a world class interstate system. I won’t say I’m biased, I mean I am biased, but I know it for a fact that it is world class, and will continue to be. I think it’s just a matter of us continuing to focus on how we can think better.
Q It seems almost by definition you must have some degree of risk or there isn’t really any innovation.
A Yes, there’s always risk.
Q So it’s calculated risk you want to see more of?
A Well, the industry should never risk safety, no, no, no. Traditional methods of work are risky as well. So there’s risk in everything. I think the environment I’m trying to create here is one that says let’s look at new ideas, let’s try them, and if something doesn’t go right, we’ll modify the approach until we reach success.