South Dakota DOT Secretary Bergquist Focuses on Public Service and Safety
A Different Perspective: Bergquist Applies Wealth of Experience and Passion for Public Service as South Dakota DOT Secretary
While upgrading roads and bridges, the South Dakota Department of Transportation has concentrated on elevating the importance of public service under the direction of Secretary Darin Bergquist.
“During my time as secretary, we have become an agency much better focused on customer service and the needs of residents and travelers of South Dakota,” says Bergquist, who has led the $690 million budget department for 12 years. “I strongly believe in the importance of public service and the responsibilities that come with it.”
Under his leadership, SDDOT remains obligated to taxpayers and people the agency serves. The department surveys people about their thoughts and ideas and strives to deliver on their needs.
“We need to continue to take the pulse and deliver projects and maintain the system consistent with our customers’ priorities,” Bergquist says.
A Different Way of Thinking
Before joining the department in 1998, Bergquist had served as an administrative law judge for the South Dakota Department of Labor and prior to that an attorney in private practice, also in South Dakota. That experience has served him well.
“When I was first appointed to this position, I scratched my head, wondering about putting an attorney in charge of a department full of engineers,” Bergquist recalls. “I knew they were not going to have me design a bridge. But over time, it has worked out and been proven to work really well.”
As an attorney, Bergquist brings a different perspective than engineers.
“Engineers tend to see things as black or white, yes or no,” Bergquist says. “Attorneys see everything as shades of gray. Once we understood that, my relationship with our engineers has been good, and I think it has worked well having an attorney as secretary.”
Bergquist describes himself as hands on. He was familiar with department operations and respected the experienced engineers leading different divisions within the department. He challenges the engineers to make decisions in an objective manner, based on facts rather than simply thinking something would be a good idea.
One thing that has helped the department determine needs of the system is a “spider van,” a vehicle that drives every mile of state roads, capturing data and video about conditions of pavement. “The data the spider van gathers helps drive our decisions,” Bergquist says.
Engineers review the data and identify priorities. “It has helped a lot that I am surrounded by quality people, and I let them do what they do best,” he says. And “I’m deliberative in my decision making. I like to make sure I have all of the information and give people an opportunity to educate me, before I make a decision for the department.”
The SDDOT is responsible for allocating federal funds for aviation and assisting rural transit providers and allocating state and federal dollars. Additionally, the department owns rail lines and leases them to private operators. More than half of the budget, 56 percent, comes from federal dollars.
“We never have enough money, but we are in better shape than we were five years ago,” he reports.
Maintaining the state’s infrastructure remains a priority for Bergquist. The department spent several years developing a case for an increase in state dollars to keep the South Dakota transportation system at peak operations. Then in 2015, the state legislature passed and the governor signed a comprehensive road and bridge-funding bill, which has helped with maintenance.
“We also have gotten our highways and bridges in as good of conditions as they have ever been in history,” Bergquist reports.
The department has few congestion problems and little need for capacity projects. Most of the truck traffic is passing through the state, not originating or ending in South Dakota.
“While we see a lot of truck traffic, we are doing things to reduce truck traffic by shipping grain on rail,” he says.
The department works from a Statewide Transportation Improvement Program, a four-year plan developed by the department for completing road and bridge projects. That plan is then presented to the Transportation Commission, which gives the final approval.
“It’s our commitment to the public, what we plan to do and when,” Bergquist says. “We give people an opportunity to provide feedback.”
Improving safety on the state’s roads also tops Bergquist’s priorities. Single vehicle crashes, where the car goes off the road and rolls over, killing the driver, are a problem. Most crashes have a driver-behavior element, but SDDOT strives to ensure any road hazards are minimized. That may include improving lighting and pavement marking, adding shoulders and making ditches flatter. The $13 million U.S. Highway 18 improvement project south of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, is an example of that thinking. The project expanded the shoulders, eliminated steep ditches and leveled out the topography, cutting down hills and filling in valleys to create better sight lines.
“We want to continue to focus on making our system as best we can,” he says.
Hiring and keeping talented people has become a greater priority for the department, as engineers and construction experts have become in great demand across the country. The department employs more than 1,000 people.
“We have been focusing on doing what we can to recruit and retain the best people,” Bergquist says.
A Tight Focus
Looking ahead, a new governor and administration may suggest changes to the department or other agencies, but Bergquist is prepared.
“I do not see significant changes to what we are doing,” Bergquist says. “We continue to focus on being public servants and meeting the needs of our customers and taking care of the assets we have and maintaining them in the best condition possible.”
Along with his commitment to customer service, Bergquist has shaped a department that excels at delivering quality projects.
“I feel when I leave here, I will leave a better department and transportation system than when I found it,” says Bergquist.