Utah’s Highway Boss Wants More Transparency, Collaboration

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  • September 23, 2013

September 23, 2013 | Salt Lake Tribune | By Lee Davidson |
The Utah Department of Transportation has not been transparent enough about its decisions and spending, fueling scandals and eroding public trust.

Sometimes, the agency has been so focused on building big road projects quickly that quality concerns came second. And it has missed opportunities to partner with other agencies to reduce air pollution by connecting better with mass transit or adding bicycle lanes and better walkways.

These criticisms come not from the environmentalists who often fight UDOT or the stuck-in-traffic commuters who often curse it.

Instead, they come from Carlos Braceras, UDOT’s new executive director.

Don’t get him wrong. He says UDOT is one of the top transportation agencies in the nation and he is proud of it but says it can do better. So he is setting out to change how it works and hopes to shift its culture into a higher gear. “It’s probably going to make a lot of people uncomfortable” at the agency, he says, adding it already has.

Braceras — who became chief in May after serving as UDOT’s No. 2 official for the 12 years that John Njord was its director — has come up with what he calls a new “vision for UDOT’s future,” with several areas of new emphasis. He has been presenting it to lawmakers, the Utah Transportation Commission and UDOT officials.

Transparency • One new focus is on transparency — in part because of such scandals as improperly firing a possible whistle-blower, a UDOT official having an affair with a contractor and the agency quietly paying $13 million to a losing bidder after it claimed it was cheated out of a $1.1 billion contract to rebuild Interstate 15 in Utah County.

The contractor lost that bid by one point after UDOT tweaked scores in its review process. The contract went instead to a group that had given $82,500 to Gov. Gary Herbert’s election campaign. The $13 million allowed UDOT to use some ideas developed by the losing bidder.

“We made the right decision on that $13 million. How we made that decision could have been better. … That should not happen in the future,” Braceras says in an interview.

“My goal is to be the most transparent state agency, and the most transparent transportation agency in the county,” he says. “I want people to understand how decisions are made, so they understand how their money is being used. … The good, the bad, the ugly, the public deserves to know.”

He says that led him to ask officials to try a new test as they make decisions.

“When we are trying to make decisions, I always challenge our folks, ‘Can you pass the headline test? If that was the top headline of The Tribune, would you feel good that you made the right decision?’ ” he says. “I think this focus will take our agency where we need to be. It builds public trust.”

Quality • Another area of new focus is on improving quality.

“We had this incredible focus on time. Everything we do has been about designing as quickly as possible and building as quickly as possible,” he said. Braceras wants instead to have the primary focus on quality.

He says sometimes quality also brings speed — such as UDOT in recent years deciding to build replacement bridges to the side of freeways and then sliding them into place in a single night to reduce traffic interruption. He said that also brings higher quality because bridges are built in fewer sections, and concrete cures without constant vibration from freeway traffic.

He says taking a bit of extra time to ensure quality design “will bring fewer change orders, which will cost the public less money. The construction will be of better quality, so that means it will last longer. The public will get greater value, and we will be back [repairing or replacing bridges] less often.”

Collaboration • Another new focus is on better collaboration. For example, Braceras wants improved planning with others at the front end of projects. He said that has not always happened. “We are going to change so that we can set the project on the right direction right off the bat.”

That also includes working to better integrate highways with mass transit, bicyclists and pedestrians.

“I believe we have a world-class highway network. I believe we have a world-class transit network. But I think we can do a lot better integrating the two,” along with better facilities for bikes and pedestrians, he says.

“In the past if we did a big project like Mountain View or Legacy Parkway, we put trail systems in. But if we were to go out and do a chip seal on a road or a simple maintenance job, we didn’t think about, ‘Does the community have plans to put in a bike lane here, does the community want to improve pedestrian access here?’ ”

Braceras says he wants UDOT to constantly ask, “Is there a way to maybe narrow a lane here or put in a little extra pavement and provide for a bike lane that is safer?”

Benefits • Braceras is an avid, lifelong bicyclist, often riding with groups promoting safer cycling. He says that helps him appreciate that designing roads to help cyclists — and pedestrians and mass transit — is an important step toward reducing road congestion and air pollution.

“If a family is not comfortable in walking that last quarter-mile to get to a train, or walking to school because they are worried about safety, they are not going to make that trip. So they are going to start the car — those cold starts are not good for air quality — and they are going to drive a half mile to take the kids to school instead of walking,” he says.

“I think for a small investment we can make a big difference.”

Critics • Even UDOT critics like Braceras’s ideas, including Steve Erickson, spokesman for the Shared Solution Coalition of community and environmental groups that has been fighting the agency’s plan for the new West Davis Corridor freeway — the northern extension of Legacy Parkway. They say UDOT has too narrowly focused there on moving more cars faster, without giving enough attention to what it would do to urban sprawl, air pollution and wetlands.

“Overall, we can’t disagree with any of his intentions. That’s a positive way to proceed,” Erickson said. “But UDOT is a big agency that has done things a certain way for a long time. That’s difficult to turn around and may not be as simple as it sounds.”

Erickson said groups such as his will be watching to see if Braceras’ new vision makes much of a difference or is just talk.

Braceras says he knows his plan for a change in culture is making some UDOT employees anxious.

“I think,” he adds, “I will be doing my job if I make people a little nervous.”

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