FHWA head sees a year of thinking big, dreaming big and change.
By John Latta
The lights are off in Victor Mendez’s office. He likes it that way. It is a blustery, freezing but clear day shortly before Christmas in D.C. and the Administrator of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) looks into 2011.
Our interview wandered, but I have focused here, in the interests of available space, on what I consider its key discussions.
Mendez talks mainly about goals such as speeding up project delivery, being more flexible in working with states, pushing the innovation envelope and pressing hard on safety improvements to cut road deaths.
“I would say these are things we have to do regardless of the revenue picture. There are efficiencies and innovations out there that we need to implement and we need to do that in an urgent manner and, given where we are with the economy, I would repeat what [DOT] Secretary [Ray] LaHood said very recently. He said in America we are a land of big dreamers and despite the economy we cannot cease to dream.” We must, says Mendez, “think big” because “if you stop dreaming simply because today’s economy is not doing well, you are going to fall behind the eight-ball. We have to continue thinking about our infrastructure and the big picture. We have to continue to plan and prepare for it and – whatever that revenue picture turns out to be – if we are prepared to do things in a smarter, faster, more efficient manner, we’ll be able to make the best investment we can for the American people.”
Changes in the way FHWA works with states, and changes written into any reauthorization bill seem to be the key machinery for pushing goals ahead this year for Mendez.
Streamlining the D.C.-State Relationship
When it comes to dealings with state DOTs, Mendez believes the Stimulus, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, helped clear away a lot of the clutter that has often tangled those relationships. “In that kind of a time crunch, we were forced to ramp up our coordination with state DOTs. The relationships we have with state DOTs have actually improved, and that is incredible. I think that will play a key role as we move into the future.”
Mendez sees these improved relationships bearing fruit under any new reauthorization act, but also as FHWA tries to spur innovation. He uses Utah’s use of rapid bridge replacement practices as a simple example. “Utah is doing great. They build bridges off-site, and when you think about that it’s like building Legos and then sliding it in. But think about the big implications – it’s costing less, it’s taking less time to actually deliver to the American people, then I think of the safety benefits when you don’t have all this construction underway for a long period of time, and then the traffic control from a congestion-reduction standpoint. There’s less impact to the traveling public – that in and of itself is incredible.” His vision, he says, would be that where today we make a “big deal” about such relatively new practices, “that it will be just common standard practice throughout the nation; where it’s appropriate, just do these things quickly, efficiently and effectively. Just get ‘em done, so that we can go fix what we have to fix, take care of the issue and then move on to the next challenge.”
FHWA is recommending that states make innovative contracting practices the standard way of doing business, a position that it seems will inevitably be reflected in the wording, and regulations, of any reauthorization bill.
Mendez and FHWA have been talking to all levels of government in states, based on regional meetings, and “the outcome of these sessions is obviously to talk about the broad issues, but the outcome is that every state will go back working with us individually to create for us a state implementation plan. What that means, [for example] Utah and New York will go back and work with us directly to create an implementation plan for these concepts and ideas for their states.”
The result, he hopes, is that state, regional and local governments will expand and redefine how they work with Washington, bringing, for example, such practices as design/build and alternate bidding into arenas where they are now not considered, accepted or allowed. He cites this example: “In some cases, some states don’t have design/build legislation. I came from Arizona, where we were working on that for the past 10 to 12 years. So you’ll be able to identify a specific state approach that works for them. If it’s design/build and you don’t have design/build legislation maybe at the state level, maybe I need to be talking to the right people to get that. And that’s going to really fall back on the states to make that happen. Not every idea is applicable everywhere, I understand that, but where it is we ought to take a hard look at it.”