Visionary Transportation Bureaucrats, Part 5: Shailen Bhatt and Kirk Steudle

This is the fifth and final installment of Streetsblog’s series profiling 11 officials who are bringing American cities and towns into the 21st century when it comes to transportation and planning policy. Here are the nine public servants whose work we’ve highlighted so far.

  • Part one: Janette Sadik-Khan, Gabe Klein, and Richard Hall
  • Part two: Keith Parker and Mike McKeever
  • Part three: Joe Calabrese and Ryan Gravel
  • Part four: Jay Primus and Rina Cutler

On to part five…

Shailen Bhatt

Secretary of the Delaware Department of Transportation

Secretary Bhatt and his wife take part in a bike ride wearing DelDOT jerseys. Photo: Bike Delaware

Early last year, a coalition of cycling, civic and environmental groups, including Bike Delaware, drafted a letter to Governor Jack Markell, asking him to hire a visionary leader to head DelDOT.

Markell didn’t disappoint. The man he chose for the job, Shailen Bhatt, had played a key role at the Federal Highway Administration administering stimulus funds, particularly the livability initiatives. Bhatt also represented the U.S. at the United Nations Climate Change Summit in Cancún.

As DelDOT director, Bhatt represents a clear departure from the old stereotype of the stodgy agency exec who sees road widening as the ultimate end of all transportation planning.

In a presentation at the Delaware Bike Summit last year, Bhatt told cyclists that he wants “to be known as the secretary that really pushed multi-modalism.” Toward that end, Bhatt and Markell have been making admirable progress over the past year. The state of Delaware has moved forward on a statewide network of trails — “bicycle highways” — between its major cities.

Perhaps more importantly, the state is putting its money where its mouth is. The Delaware legislature recently approved $5 million from the state’s general fund to support trail development. That money will be used to obtain a four-to-one federal match — $20 million, all told, which we’re sure will go a long way under Secretary Bhatt.

Kirk Steudle

Secretary of Michigan Department of Transportation, President of AASHTO

Kirk Steudle is probably the most traditional transportation official on this list. After all, he is the head of the state DOT in America’s car capital.

Michigan DOT's Kirk Steudle -- more than a roadbuilder. Photo: MDOT

But Michigan, under Steudle and other leaders, is making admirable progress on sustainable transportation — the kind of progress that gives us hope that Michigan will rise again.

Over the past few years, MDOT has developed a policy giving funding priority on infrastructure projects to communities with complete streets policies. As a result, Michigan now has more complete streets policies than any other state.

That’s not all. The agency now houses bike and ped programs under its Division of Economic Development, recognizing that these transportation options appeal to the mobile talent that Michigan has been bleeding. MDOT even runs a program called “Training Wheels” that puts their traffic engineers on the seat of a bike.

Steudle is a respected national leader for his bread-and-butter policies, serving as the president of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. He’s also considered an expert on intelligent transportation systems.

At times he’s irked livability advocates in Michigan. He argued, successfully, to scrap light rail plans in Detroit in favor of a large BRT system, something that was painful to watch but perhaps necessary.

Michigan still has tremendous transportation challenges. Detroit, for instance, needs to develop a regional transportation system that is sufficiently resourced to ensure that the city’s carfree residents can lead dignified lives. But under Governor Rick Snyder and Steudle, the region seems to be moving forward.

Steudle’s level-headed leadership could help usher in a new vision for the state. Heck, you know things are changing for the better when Kalamazoo is now served by intercity rail that maxes out at 110 miles per hour.

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While we’re wrapping up the series today, we make no claims to having compiled a comprehensive list. We hope this list gave a sense of the innovations underway at city DOTs, transit agencies, and state DOTs — and the people who are making change happen. If you have favorite local transportation officials you’d like to heap with praise but didn’t make it into the series, please tell us about them in the comments.