An Occasional Series: One 2 One with some of the most interesting people in the business
Better Roads Staff
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.