Colorado DOT Director Bhatt Looks to the Future with Innovative RoadX Program
Determined to provide Colorado with the best department of transportation in the country, Executive Director Shailen P. Bhatt has taken a people first approach to leadership - whether those people are the drivers on the state's roads and bridges or the people working for the department who serve the public.
"Every decision we make is focused on our core mission to save lives and to make people's lives better," says Bhatt, who oversees a department employing 3,000 people and a budget of $1.4 billion.
Saving and bettering lives occurs directly and indirectly. CDOT engineers design roads and bridges to function more safely, and plow drivers not only remove snow but also watch for and report accidents. The department also continually tries to remove bottlenecks and decrease congestion to give people more time to enjoy their lives. That does not always mean building more or wider roads.
"We're trying to make the system operate more efficiently," Bhatt says.
Bhatt has identified three priorities in working toward the goal of making the CDOT the best in the country: system, delivering projects on time and within budget; technology, harnessing it to improve transportation; and people.
"If we take care of our system, embrace technology and, most importantly, take care of our people, we will be on the right trajectory to become the best DOT in the country," Bhatt says.
"Technology is transforming the way we experience transportation," Bhatt says. "The DOT five or 10 years from now is going to look different."
For one thing, departments will need to understand and use technology and employ data analysts, he says. CDOT recently hired a chief data officer.
Under Bhatt's leadership, CDOT launched RoadX, a technology and ingenuity program to solve infrastructure challenges, such as self-driving cars and smarter roadways. In 2016, the department invested $20 million to start RoadX. It's a collaboration with the private sector, with the department working with several companies. The department expects such technologies could reduce or prevent 80 percent of accidents on the road and nearly quadruple highway capacity.
"We cannot build our way out of congestion," Bhatt says. "Technology and its implications have become more clear. The genesis of RoadX is making Colorado the leading state in the country in deploying autonomous vehicle technologies."
The first autonomous commercial delivery took place in Colorado. Last fall, a fully-loaded self-driving tractor-trailer brought a load of beer 120 miles on Interstate 25, from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs. A professional driver was in the vehicle, monitoring the delivery from the sleeper berth and did not interfere in the truck's self-driving. Truck manufacturer Otto Co-Founder Lior Ron praised Colorado for being a "forward-looking state."
"I realized it would require some managed risk taking on RoadX, but the potential benefits are huge," Bhatt says. "We believe RoadX will help us solve a lot of issues."
For instance, human errors are responsible for 90 percent of crashes, including 35,000 deaths nationwide. People often drive while impaired or fatigued and make mistakes. More than half of congestion is due to nonrecurring incidents, such as vehicle breakdowns and crashes. Technology may be able to solve those issues.
Building on His Experience
Bhatt began his DOTs career as the Deputy Director of the Kentucky DOT, then served at the national level at the Federal Highway Administration, and most recently was the cabinet secretary for the Delaware DOT.
"Those have taught me this is an amazing country and diverse," Bhatt says. "But everyone wants the same things - a better life for their children than they had, a good job and safe roadways. Transportation underpins all of those goals."
Bhatt considers himself a better leader today from those experiences. One of the things Bhatt learned at these organizations was that even though someone has the title, it does not mean that anybody has to follow or believe in the leader's message.
"People need a compelling vision," Bhatt says. "Saving lives and making people's lives better resonates with people."
Bhatt also has served in leadership positions at the American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials (AASHTO), six years on the Board of Directors, and in state transportation organizations. He chairs the AASHTO Subcommittee on Transportation Systems Management and Operations and past chaired the Public Transportation Committee. He also serves as the Chair of the Board of Directors for the National Operations Center of Excellence (NOCoE).
"I gladly give my time and effort to NOCoE and AASHTO," says Bhatt, explaining association involvement provides opportunities for learning other country's best practices and new ways to do things more efficiently.
"It's a lot of learning and sharing of information," Bhatt says.
For instance, a delegation from Australia told him about a ramp metering system that resulted in a 40 percent reduction in traffic congestion. Colorado will implement a similar system in Denver this summer. The technology does not let new vehicles enter the interstate, holding them on the ramp until the congestion decreases. A 20 percent improvement is the equivalent of adding a lane, costing about $500 million for 15 miles. And the new system will cost $8 million.
"If we can make it work, any state can make it work," Bhatt says. "Other states can then learn from us."
Bhatt will shepherd the department through upcoming financial shortages, including $9 billion in unfunded capacity and maintenance projects. Some interstates are still in their original 1950s and 1960s configurations, including one connecting the state's two largest cities. CDOT also has a need for multimodal transportation, such as transit. The state has struggled to raise funds for transportation, Bhatt indicates. However, it has $2 billion in asset-management funds during the next 20 years.
Improvements are needed to spur economic growth in the state. As Bhatt explains, company officials considering relocating or opening a manufacturing facility in a community want good transportation to get goods to market and are concerned with quality of life for their employees. Tourism also is an important industry in Colorado, and travelers do not want to spend vacations sitting in traffic.
"Transportation is the underpinning of economic development," Bhatt says. "Infrastructure is a nonpartisan issue."
Overcoming such obstacles requires leadership.
Bhatt considers himself a caring leader. He likes to create a culture of excellence in leadership and develops employees within the organization. That begins by hiring the right candidates who appreciate people and handle them well.
"You can teach people skills, but you either care or you don't," Bhatt says.
He expects those leaders to support the department's goals and care for and fight for the people they lead. He then models how to lead and do so in a way that values people.
"Show me a company that delivers good customer service, and I will show you a company that treats its people well," Bhatt says.
Bhatt is not afraid to hire people who are just as skilled and qualified as he is. For instance, he brought Michael Lewis, a colleague from another New England state, with him to Colorado to serve as Deputy Executive Director.
"The best thing you can do is bring someone on, and they go on to do something better," he says. "My accomplishments are the people I have helped with their careers."