Improved Project Delivery is First Priority for North Carolina DOT
Determined to find long-term solutions to the challenges facing transportation at this decisive point in time, North Carolina Department of Transportation Secretary James H. Trogdon III is streamlining operations, looking to technology and planning for the future.
"The demands are increasing, and the resources are routinely declining," Trogdon says. "Modes of transportation are advancing rapidly."
The strategic challenges include developing strategies for sustainable, long-term investment and replacement of motor-fuel revenues as the market moves toward electric vehicles and more fuel-efficient vehicles. Additionally, he says the department has to become more agile as change comes at a rapid rate. North Carolina is growing by about 150,000 new residents annually, nearly all will need to get around. At the same time commerce must move goods and agricultural products.
"If you don't solve challenge number one, the revenue, you have a difficult time solving challenge number two," Trogdon explains.
Priorities for NCDOT
Trogdon's main priority is to improve delivery of projects in the state's Transportation Improvement Program. Since January, the department has accelerated 350 of 441 non-bridge projects in the plan and added 144 new projects. The efficiencies mainly came about by resequencing the work by performing tasks simultaneously rather than sequentially.
"Adjusting the plan was the first step and now executing the plan will be the next step," he said.
The department has changed the way it prioritizes projects, shifting from legislative authorization in the statutes to a data-driven process that will select projects based on a number of factors, such as reducing travel time and congestion, improving freight flows and enhancing mobility to urban job centers.
"We need to be much more agile in our delivery," Trogdon says. "We have to meet a more compressed timeline while going through the same processes."
NCDOT has used different delivery methods. About 40 percent of projects are let as design-build. The state also has used design-build-finance on a Charlotte beltway and interchange to accelerate delivery. The department is executing a design, build, finance, operate and maintain contract with toll-revenue risk for an express lane project on Interstate 77, also in the Charlotte area.
"Public-private partnerships will be one more tool to be available for the right project," he says.
Improving safety is another priority for the secretary. Although North Carolina is the ninth-largest state in the country, it has the fifth highest fatality rate for motor vehicle accidents. The department's current focus is on not only engineering improvements that make the state's infrastructure safer, but also on changing driver behavior through efforts to discourage distracted driving and driving while intoxicated, and encourage seat belt use and child passenger safety. The agency has convened an Executive Committee for Highway Safety chaired by Trogdon that leverages safety stakeholders from throughout the state to collectively address these issues.
Trogdon also wants to support the state's economy, primarily through improving mobility in rural areas and reducing congestion in urban areas. He also aims to improve the appearance and condition of the highway system.
He is exploring ways to leverage new technologies, including drones, data analytics and self-driving cars.
Life Experiences Shape Leadership Approach
Trogdon leads a $4.7 billion to $5 billion department with about 10,500 employees, down from 12,500 in 2013. The department has outsourced, including some design to engineering firms and maintenance work.
"We are like other businesses across the nation; we are doing everything we can to improve our efficiency," he says.
Trogdon first joined the department in 1985 as a Highway Engineer, moved up in 2000 to Division 4 Engineer overseeing maintenance, construction and operations in that region. By 2009, he was named the department's Chief Operating Officer. He retired from that position in 2013.
"After 25 years with the department, I really understand the project delivery process," he says. "And I know how to build coalitions to find solutions."
Trogdon worked for three years as Director of Strategic Transportation Planning at the North Carolina General Assembly.
"That was an invaluable experience," Trogdon says. "Sixty-percent of things you need to improve you can do internally or with industry or local governments, but for 40 percent, you need legislative authority."
Trogdon found success in that position by building trust and being an honest player who would listen and not pass a legislator's concerns on to others.
"No legislation is ever passed without trust between the members and the advice they get from industry experts," he says. "Confidentiality is critical. That is the only way to be successful."
Trogdon also learned the problem line is long. Those that come with viable solutions move up in the line. But if someone comes with viable solutions and grassroots and political support, the chances of success increases.
He also has experience in the private sector, including serving as a consultant to a professional engineering firm and as the National Transportation Director at the SAS Institute, a data analytics firm in Cary, North Carolina. The amount of available data continues to increase, and leaders will need to be able to process it to make good decisions.
"I was able to work in 30 different states and saw how states do things differently but are focused on same mission," he says. "There are no new problems, and the tools are there. The solution is finding the right fit at the right time with the right base of support."
Trogdon also served for 30 years in the military. He commanded the 105th Engineer Group and retired in 2016 as the Deputy Adjutant General for the North Carolina National Guard. He describes engineering issues as being similar, but in the military work is faster and better resourced. Things that may take years in state government are often done in 30 days in conflict areas. The military also taught him discipline, processing information, coordination and structure.
"You are on your A game every minute you are on duty," he recalls. "That's the norm."
Trogdon describes his leadership style as valuing character, competence and commitment to mission, duty and respect of all perspectives. That has to be grounded in truth.
"I like working in volatile, complex and ambiguous environments, and we, in transportation, are in that environment today," Trogdon says. "What makes me proud is moving us in the direction where we have accomplishments in the future that better position North Carolina to address all of our challenges and provide an environment where we will be successful, not just economically with peer states, but globally."