Wyoming DOT Director Panos Lays Foundation for Future Transportation Growth
With his formal appointment as Director of the Wyoming Department of Transportation (WYDOT), after serving in the position on an interim basis, Bill Panos is now focused on stabilizing department finances, building and strengthening relationships, and laying a foundation for future growth in his state.
Panos had served as Director of Wyoming's School Facilities Department for two years prior to being asked by Governor Matt Mead to take the position of WYDOT Interim Director in October 2015. At that time, Mead commented, "Bill has proven himself as a talented leader and effective manager as the Director of the School Facilities Department. I am pleased he has agreed to assume the responsibility of the Wyoming Department of Transportation. WYDOT has a proud tradition of quality leadership, and one that continues with Bill Panos." In January of this year, Panos was announced as the permanent WYDOT Director.
A California native, Panos is a graduate of the California State University, where he received a Bachelor of Science degree in Forensic Science. In a 35-year career, Panos has gained experience in both the private and public sectors. His positions often intersected with transportation-related functions and issues including transportation safety, infrastructure development, public policy and regulation, and government relations, among others.
It is a career that began impressively, and as Panos points out, at a surprisingly young age. "At 17, I was recruited by TRW Inc. - a great atmosphere for personal development. I learned about complex problem-solving techniques, and these are skills and methods I was later able to take from the private sector into the public sector."
During his 14 years with TRW, Panos moved from the technical staff in the Space and Defense Group to the position of Group Manager in the Automotive Group, coordinating operations in 26 countries in the Americas, Asia, and Europe. While at TRW, he was also a recipient of the Chairman's Award for Innovation.
Wide-Ranging Experience in the Public Sector
Moving into the public sector, Panos was State Toxics Director for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for four years; later he served as a Construction Executive for the State of Washington, and for five years as the Port and Public Works Director for the City of West Sacramento, California.
Panos and his wife of 26 years, Michelle (now a state policy adviser), moved to Wyoming in 2013 when he took the Cheyenne-based position of Director for the Wyoming School Facilities Department. "In that job, I worked with the state to reorganize K-12 school construction," he explains. "This position gave me a great opportunity to learn about Wyoming's government and our unique culture, and to "˜get to know' the state. Michelle and I are both fully engaged in volunteerism and philanthropy, and we like the opportunities Wyoming provides for both."
"As WYDOT Director, I feel really privileged to be a part of the great things that are going on here. I made it my goal to move quickly on the Governor's priorities, and over the past year, I have focused on four specific strategies. The first is technology, what I call our digital investment. Second is telling our story, our brand investment. Third is "˜Family First', our cultural investment, and fourth is WYDOT itself - our employee investment.
"All of these initiatives are now well underway. We have reorganized our senior staff, added a few new people, and are focused on technology growth.
"Reorganization of our budget and overhauling our systems to stabilize funding, predictability, and long-term planning are major goals for me in this position. Also, we want to make significant improvements to our airports - as addressed in the FAA Reauthorization Bill. It is critical to continue to have strong air service in our rural state."
Government Grant to Aid Use of Innovative Technology
A big part of what Panos calls WYDOT's "digital investment" concerns the growing interest in Connected Vehicle Technology, which enables trucks and DOT fleets to "talk" to each other and to "talk" to the roadside infrastructure. WYDOT has recently been awarded a grant from the U.S Department of Transportation (USDOT) to continue its innovative deployment of connected vehicle technology on the I-80 corridor. As Panos explains, "Our goal is to improve the safety of the traveling public and reduce the incidents associated with adverse weather conditions frequently encountered on this corridor."
The I-80 corridor in Wyoming is one of only three locations around the nation to participate in the Connected Vehicle Pilot Deployment Program. Interstate 80, which reaches its highest elevation at 8,640 feet, is a major corridor for east-west freight movement in the northwest part of the country. In the last year alone, I-80 has experienced more than 1,400 crashes with 13 fatalities and over 250 injury-related crashes.
The pilot project will enable drivers to have 360-degree awareness of hazards and situations, including some they cannot see. In practice, this means when trucks equipped with this technology approach slowed or stopped traffic, they can receive messages in their vehicles to give more reaction time and choices. Or if equipped vehicles pass roadside devices, drivers can receive messages alerting them to hazardous road conditions, crashes ahead, construction zone information, parking recommendations or other road and travel information. If the equipped vehicle is stranded, the vehicle can send out an emergency notification to the appropriate center for assistance. Fleet managers will have new and more accurate information to share with their truckers on I-80.
The federal government is providing about $4.4 million for the design and deployment phase of the project, and the combined cost of all three phases is projected to be about $5.7 million.
Systems Thinking Approach to Increasing Department Effectiveness
Panos is a strong proponent of the use of systems thinking in dealing with change and the need to adapt in an ever more complex and technology-driven world. Systems thinking provides a model for decision-making in which the relationships between the components of a system are studied and analyzed, rather than the traditional method of analyzing by breaking the system down into its separate elements. About this approach to increasing the effectiveness of WYDOT, Panos says, "Over time, it has been proven to be reliable and effective in helping agencies change. In our case, it has helped us quickly identify ways to align our efforts with the goals of the legislature and the governor. I had a good deal of previous experience with the systems thinking discipline, which I have been able to bring to this job."
WYDOT administers a wide range of transportation functions - not only planning, building, and maintaining well over 6,000 miles of highway that connect Wyoming communities and surrounding states, but also coordinating improvements at the state's 40 airports, collecting fuel taxes and user fees, regulating commercial vehicle operations, and other related undertakings.
Panos adds, "WYDOT is a little different, in that its operations also include the Highway Patrol, and so includes working to achieve law enforcement goals. One thing we've accomplished, which I'm very proud of, is improved interdiction against trafficking in humans and in drugs."
Multiple Projects Underway, But Challenges Remain
A number of significant WYDOT projects have been recently completed or are getting underway, Panos reports. "We've completed the West Belt Loop bypass in Casper, which will help divert heavy truck traffic around the city. This project also included a recreation of the entrance to Casper from the west. We've broken ground on a $42 million interchange project in Sheridan, and just approved a $22 million project to replace a bridge in Laramie. All of these will add to highway safety and mobility."
Panos' vision for his department's future does come with its share of challenges, he admits - challenges that are faced by transportation departments around the country. "A new Federal administration will affect all DOTs. It is critical that we solidify and improve our messaging at the federal level, and retain the gains we have made. Vehicle automation is evolving rapidly - we must position ourselves to support the new technologies. Our statistics on safety are unacceptable, and we need better safety systems to minimize risks. And of course, we have to deal with Wyoming's dynamic weather."
He adds, "Transportation departments around the country are so unique, and each is so much a part of their state's economic development. I am proud to be part of an amazing team. Our agency is 100 years old - it's a past to be proud of, and we look forward to another great 100 years ahead of us.
"We have 2,000 employees who are a great foundation on which to position ourselves to meet the opportunities that will come."