Delaware DOT Devoted to Innovative Infrastructure Solutions
Secretary Cohan Brings Passion for People and Public Service to DelDOT
From her teen years until now, Delaware Department of Transportation (DelDOT) Secretary Jennifer Cohan has never waivered in her passion for public service.
“Public service was in my blood,” Cohan says. “I’m a people person.”
Cohan began her career with a high-school internship, working at the Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV). Since then she has worked in the Department of Natural Resources, for the state’s General Assembly, for DelDOT as head of the DMV and currently as the agency’s cabinet secretary.
“I’m a boots on the ground, side by side with my people kind of leader,” she says.
Throughout her time in state government, she has led using a hands-on approach and leading by example. She has worked the counter at the DMV, gone into the streets with the work crews and never shied away from pitching in to help.
“It takes courage to be a woman in a male-dominated field,” Cohan says. “People expect a lot of the department. … You always have to stand up for what you know is the right thing to do, and you have to work twice as hard.”
She calls it a moral imperative to pay that forward and encourage other females to consider a career in the transportation industry. She gives talks to girls across the state to engage them to get interested in the science, technology, engineering and math fields.
“I’m letting them know they can be anything they want to be,” says Cohan, who believes opportunities are everywhere for women, including leadership roles in traditionally male-dominated professions.
DelDOT, with annual budget of $1 billion and more than 2,800 employees, is responsible for road maintenance and construction, the Division of Motor Vehicles and the Delaware Transit Corp., which operates the state’s public transportation system. DelDOT also is responsible for all modes of transportation including airports; bike and pedestrian paths/trails and ferry service. Annually, the department spends about $600 million on its capital projects.
“I’m proud of the over 2,800 employees we have here,” Cohan says. “These are some of the hardest working people I’ve ever had a chance to work alongside of.”
Cohan was the first woman to run the state’s DMV, which had been not a very well-liked state agency, and now, after Cohan has worked to streamline it, customer ratings of the service hover at 99 percent satisfaction.
“My entire focus, as secretary has been on innovation and customer service,” Cohan says. “We are doing all kinds of fun and innovative stuff.”
During Cohan’s tenure as secretary, the department has embrace technology and harnessed its possibilities to improve services, delivery of projects and communication with citizens.
“We are utilizing technology wherever we can,” Cohan says.
Among her achievements is the development of the DelDOT app, which provides real-time access to more than 100 cameras, traffic information, snow plow locations and project updates. The department has installed Bluetooth technology to gather data about traffic congestion.
The department also uses drones to respond to weather-related events, particularly flooding, and the management of special events. DelDOT also intends to use the drones to inspect bridges and projects.
“Drone usage is something we are excited about,” Cohan says.
In 2018, the department piloted an electronic driver’s license, placed on the person’s smartphone. The license has several security features, including a floating image of the holder’s face.
DelDOT also is preparing its infrastructure for connected and autonomous vehicles. An advisory council is making recommendations on changes needed to accommodate a road system that will consist of all levels of autonomous and connected vehicles. The department will pilot two autonomous shuttles in conjunction with the University of Delaware later this year.
Last year, the department held its first innovation fair. More than 100 innovative submittals competed in the fair. The innovations covered construction projects, financial reporting, artificial intelligent apps, and a mobile DMV unit. One of the more successful ideas was applying high-friction surface treatments to a dozen local roads with a history of high rates of crashes. Since the high-friction surfaces were applied, Delaware has experienced a 56 percent crash reduction in those areas.
“It’s innovative and the surface treatment looks kind of weird,” Cohan says. “But you cannot argue with those kinds of safety benefits, so that’s an innovation we are going to expand throughout the state.”
The department delivered the first diverging-diamond intersection in Delaware. The design moves left-turning traffic more quickly and safely than a traditional intersection, and it costs significantly less than a traditional cloverleaf interchange. For instance, Cohan reports a cloverleaf would cost about $25 million to build, whereas the diverging diamond cost $7 million and was completed within nine months in existing intersection right of way.
“Now that it is open, people love it,” Cohan says.
Cohan has embraced environmental stewardship and is converting the transit system to electric and propane-powered buses, rather than gas or diesel-powered buses.
On a lighter note, the department has rolled out a mascot – Wally the Work Zone Warrior, a 10-foot tall mascot made out of refurbished traffic barrels. The mascot educates people about work zone safety and young people about careers in transportation.
Building and Maintaining Roads
After years of suffering from a lack of funding, maintenance of the existing infrastructure has been a priority for Cohan, who worked for passage of a revenue package as soon as she took office in 2015.
“We are making up for lost time,” Cohan says. “The association between a really good transportation infrastructure network and economic development is closely knit. Making sure we are competitive is important to me.”
DelDOT is building a new U.S. 301 in southern New Castle County to reduce congestion and improve safety. The more than $600 million road is schedule for completion at the end of this year.
“Development will be attracted to this location because of the new infrastructure that is being built to handle economic growth,” Cohan says. “With companies looking to start or relocate, transportation infrastructure is one of the key things they look for.”
Projects are going on all over the state, not just in New Castle County, which historically received the lion’s share of the roadwork. Cohan instituted a project prioritization process to rankprojects by various factors, such as safety and congestion mitigation.
“We are ensuring prioritization is based on the project need, not necessarily a few isolated areas,” Cohan says.
Pedestrian safety is another priority for Cohan. Delaware has a high pedestrian death rate. DelDOT is working to separate pedestrian and bicycle traffic from vehicle traffic. The department has added more than $6 million in sidewalks in the southern beach communities. Since those sidewalks were opened, there have been no pedestrian fatalities in that area. More pedestrian safety projects are on the horizon to drive those rates down further.
Diving In to Create a Better World
Even with all of the challenges associated with running DelDOT, Cohan spends considerable free time making the world a better place.
Cohan reports coming from humble beginnings. She worked her way through college and graduate school. She graduated summa cum laude from Wilmington University with a Bachelor of Science in Business Management and a Master of Science in Public Administration.
Now she teaches leadership, public policy and strategy in the university’s master’s program. She is active in transportation associations and area nonprofits.
Cohan actively volunteers with the Greater Dover Boys and Girls Club and is its immediate past president. She also serves as Chair of the Board of Directors at the Southern Delaware American Heart Association.
“Service to the community is what I am all about,” Cohan says. “You work hard, and you give back.”