With a $13.1 billion backlog of road and bridge projects needed within the state, Louisiana faces several challenges to maintain and upgrade its infrastructure, but Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development Secretary Shawn Wilson, PhD, has a plan to bring the system up to current standards.
"I am making a case for new funding for transportation, because we are woefully underfunded as a country," Wilson says. "And it's exaggerated at the state level."
The backlog represents the projects that should have been done in the past 25 to 30 years that have not been completed, especially maintenance. It includes the 12 bridges Wilson has closed in the past year and more than 200 since becoming secretary, because they became unsafe. It doesn't include $14 of $15 billion for improvements that the state needs and are "significant for the global economy."
"The biggest problem I have in my state is an inconsistent allocation of resources for infrastructure and the pending inability to match federal funds," Wilson adds. "The hard solution, the decision of principle and courage is to say yes, and this is how we are going to get it right. And that is what I am committed to doing."
In July 2016, Louisiana Governor John Bel Edward established a task force on Transportation Infrastructure Investment, co-chaired by Wilson. At the end of last year, the task force recommended infusing another $700 million per year for infrastructure improvements during the next 10 to 15 years, something Wilson calls "bold." That would be in addition to the current $650 million construction budget.
"Those [dollars] will bring ongoing jobs and improvements," Wilson says. "The best thing we can do is protect the investment, so it does not deteriorate over time. You get what you pay for and you pay for what you get."
Wilson plans to be a champion for infrastructure improvements. He uses social media and the press to communicate department decisions and needs in a way the average person can understand.
"If we can demonstrate to the public what we do, we have been successful," Wilson says. "We bring value with infrastructure. We bring a quality of life with infrastructure."
Wilson earned a doctoral degree in public policy and a master's degree in public administration. He joined the DOTD in 2005 and had worked as Chief of Staff for three secretaries before being appointed Secretary. Prior to that, he had served as Deputy Legislative Director in Governor Blanco's administration.
Working in government at this level, "I've learned every elected official has a constituency," Wilson says. "The one enduring principle is they like transparency and honesty and being successful wins. In a legislative fight, I need that Republican and Democrat to both feel they can win, just as the rural and urban legislator has to feel the win."
Having cultivated professional relationships and demonstrating a strong history of operating in the daylight and keeping his word with elected officials while in prior positions, Wilson expects that gives him more credibility with the decision makers.
"I think that will pay off in getting additional revenue for transportation," Wilson says.
He feels his background in policy matters and as a bipartisan problem solver in the role of Chief of Staff at the DOTD has prepared him well for the challenges of leading the 4,200-person department.
"My experiences over the years have paid off, and I look forward to continuing to lead in a way that got me to this point," Wilson says. "Being honest, a decision maker and delivering as much as I can for as many as I can with what resources I've got."
Wilson's priorities, in addition to obtaining more state funding for surface transportation, include implementing a comprehensive multimodal transportation agenda. He intends to continue working with federal partners on transportation funding, standards and other issues.
"Transportation is constitutional and institutional in terms of its ability to deliver for citizens in a multimodal way," Wilson says.
That includes serving as a factor of economic development.
"I view what we do as being an economic driver," says Wilson, explaining that business people tell him all of the time about the importance of good roads, rails, aviation assets, waterways and other transportation and mobility systems. They all affect a company's ability to bring in raw materials, move products and secure a qualified workforce.
"If we are going to extract resources from the ground, it has to get it from point A to point B," he explains. "If you manufacture something, it has to get into the economy. Everything you own, buy, sell or trade, interfaces with our transportation system and comes with a cost."
The department is working to speed delivery of projects, using design-build methods to expedite completion dates, so businesses in the area and consumers are not inconvenienced any longer than necessary. He's advanced an innovative corridor improvement project to alleviate congestion in Baton Rouge with the shortest design-build procurement in the department's history.
"It drives me up a wall when we make everyone suffer a longer period of time rather than doing it in shorter, meaningful segments, so people can see the value of what we have done," Wilson says.
The department also is investigating forming public-private partnerships to get roads and other infrastructure built more quickly. He is working to sustain a ferry privatization effort in New Orleans, the first of its kind, that he worked on in the previous administration. "All solutions are on the table," Wilson says.
Collaboration and Transparency
Wilson describes his leadership style as pragmatic and personable. He maintains an open-door policy and is not afraid to admit when he or the department has made a wrong decision. He avoids micromanaging unless he has to refocus priorities.
"My chief engineer is a much better engineer than I am; my chief of construction is a better chief of construction than I am, but when their decisions and actions go against the new vision or policies of this administration, it's up to me to step in," Wilson says. "I believe in holding ourselves accountable as a department. That's a refreshing thing for government."
His openness to new ideas from within and outside the department has garnered some workable suggestions. Some of those solutions may not be as perfect as if the situation was studied for five years, but Wilson is a man of action and would rather have the resolution sound and safe at 90 percent and built than to wait and let the public and Louisiana businesses suffer any longer delays.
Additionally, he describes his style as one in which teamwork and diversity rule. Following this principle, initially championed by the governor, he aims to ensure the department is representative of the state it serves. He listens to others and learns from them and their perspectives. "We are going to be more collaborative with our partners," Wilson says.
Those partners include contractors, engineers, industry leaders and local government officials. He aims to help all of those folks work successfully with the department.
"We are not going to be so high as to think we know what is best for all of those entities," Wilson explains. "We have to be more collaborative not only in decision making but in the process that leads to those decisions."
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