Nebraska Department of Roads Director Schneweis Makes Great Strides Towards State Growth
Eight months into his new position as Director of the Nebraska Department of Roads, Kyle Schneweis, P.E., has made significant progress in changing the direction of the agency.
"We want to grow the state and find ways to leverage transportation investments to grow Nebraska," Schneweis says. "We are trying to bring an entrepreneurial spirit to government, trying to deliver projects faster and better than yesterday."
Schneweis is evaluating how the $845 million annual budget is spent, and aims to make better decisions about its capital improvement practices. In the past, the department has relied on the usual traffic safety data and made appropriate engineering decisions. But now, it will consider more public suggestions and the economic impact of a proposed project.
"We need to understand those impacts and measure them," Schneweis says.
He has launched a task force with 20 business and community leaders to help the department find better ways to improve its business practices, such as incentivizing contractors. At the same time, employees are being empowered to make decisions and look for ways to do things better.
"There is always complexity being added to our jobs, more rules, more laws," Schneweis reports. "We need to find ways to remove the complexity, and that takes an entrepreneurial spirit."
On a positive note, Schneweis emphasized that Nebraska already enjoys a good transportation system with a revenue stream to maintain the roads in good condition and to invest in future projects. $500 million of the budget is set aside for construction projects. He is in the process of updating the long-range plans.
"We have more needs than money, but for the foreseeable future, we have enough funds to take care of the system," he says.
Meeting Citizens' Expectations
"We are trying to have a more customer-focused approach to government," he says. "The people of Nebraska expect results from their government."
People want projects completed faster. That may require changing state laws to allow investigation of alternative delivery methods, such as piloting design-build or public-private partnerships.
"We need more tools," says Schneweis, who expressed an interest in considering options.
To better assist local governments, Schneweis modified a federal fund purchase program. The Department of Roads will now give 90 cents on every dollar in state funds for federal funds. The local governments can do projects more quickly, and the state receives a good return on its money.
For Schneweis, success will require listening to key stakeholders, being transparent about decisions, enhancing communication and streamlining permitting to make it easier for people to do business with the state.
"It takes a constant drumbeat to communicate," Schneweis says. "You can never do it good enough. It's a perpetual challenge."
Career in Transportation Serves Him Well
Governor Pete Ricketts appointed Schneweis in May 2015, after a national search to find a forward-looking leader. At the time, Ricketts said, "His leadership will help our department think creatively about how our state finances roads, works with regulators, constructs roads, and plans for the future."
Schneweis earned his civil engineering degree from the University of North Dakota and is a licensed professional engineer. He severed in a variety of roles at the Kansas Department of Transportation from 1999 to 2010, including Chief of Government Affairs. He was involved in the development and legislative approval of the state's $8.2 billion T-WORKS transportation investment program, which used bond financing.
"I spent most of my career in the planning and policy world," Schneweis recalls. "It allowed me to get into the legislative and political environment, and as an engineer, it was a different opportunity. I bring a blend of a technical background but a strategic approach."
During his tenure with the Kansas DOT, Schneweis worked on a series of organizational and cultural changes, including improvement of resource allocation and the project selection processes, and right-sizing projects to save resources and enhance efficiencies.
Then he joined the High Street Consulting Group, a transportation planning, policy and financial consulting firm based in Chevy Chase, Maryland, as a partner. While there, he provided strategic planning and performance management expertise to more than 25 national, state and local clients.
"It let me get out of Kansas and work with about a dozen states and the federal government," he says. "It helped me broaden my horizon for what's out there and what the challenges are and how people are solving the challenges in other states. On the private side, you gain a different perspective of how to think about resources and value time. Bringing that to the public sector, it will be helpful."
Schneweis considers himself a "team guy" and praised the team environment found within the 2,140-person department. He wants to foster even greater collegiality.
Projects and Priorities
With money from the Build Nebraska Act legislative package, the department is moving forward with its capital improvement projects. Several high-profile projects are coming up including the Heartland Expressway and the South Beltway in Lincoln. Schneweis has set a priority for ensuring work zones are safe. He also wants to work with local governments to make roads safer where local and state highways intersect.
Schneweis cut the ribbon in August 2015 at the opening of the Wahoo Expressway, one of the first Build Nebraska Act projects. Highway 133 from Blair to Omaha is currently under construction as are the second and third phases of the Kearney East Bypass and the Interstate 80 Diverging Diamond project in Lincoln.
"We're moving forward, and we're excited about projects that are coming," Schneweis concludes. "We're changing how we think about how we take the next round of projects to include economic impact and public prioritization."