A big footprint
MaineDOT’s Chief Engineer John Dority looks back at 4+ decades in Maine transportation
By Douglas Rooks
Unlike many kids, John Dority knew what he wanted to do early in life. When he was seven, he was asked about his future, and said, “I want to be the chief state transportation engineer.” Half a century later, he achieved his goal through, as he put it, “perseverance and a lot of luck.”
Dority recently was among a number of long-time state employees accepting retirement incentives. At age 72, he said goodbye to the department where he’d worked for more than four decades. Many of those who have known and worked with him took the occasion to look back at his career and the giant footprint he has left on Maine’s network of highways and bridges.
His departure did not surprise those close to him. He had continued to work while his wife, with whom he raised three children, endured a long illness, and passed away two years ago. Afterward, he began thinking about retirement. He reflected on that decision during an interview in the quiet Augusta home where he’s lived since 1984, when he returned to the capital after 10 years running MaineDOT’s maintenance division in Presque Isle.
“I have lots of outdoor toys,” he said, gesturing to a fleet of recreational vehicles in the side yard. “It’s good to have the time.”
Dority’s decision about his future career was not all that surprising, either. His father was employed in the state highway maintenance division, and Dority, like many of his colleagues, got his start as a laborer. Counting summers before college, he had 53 years of service with the state.
After attending high school and earning his engineering degree at the University of Maine, he joined the Air National Guard and served one year active duty and five years in the Guard at Dow Air Force Base in Bangor.
Even in his early years, it was clear that John Dority was not an entirely typical engineer. Said Warren Foster, former head of project development for MaineDOT, “He has a real passion for engineering, but he’s also known for his problem-solving ability.”
Alden Small, a former MaineDOT deputy and acting commissioner, concurs. “John really enjoys a crisis, and if there wasn’t one, he’d create it,” he said, adding, “and that wasn’t a bad thing.” It was Small, a former MBTA board member and Maine Transportation Achievement Award winner, who brought Dority back to Augusta to assume his former role of maintenance chief when he moved to the commissioner’s office.
“He’s always been capable of making quick decisions, issue by issue. He really knew how to move things along,” Small said.
Foster first worked with Dority in the Division of Project Development, and said, “He was a mentor of mine, and many others. His dedication to DOT and his people was unquestioned.”
Dority describes himself as an “extroverted engineer,” when asked about how he approached his job. “Our profession has a lot of people who want to get every little thing right, who want to hold on to things until the very last minute,” he said.
Dority’s approach, perhaps encouraged by his years in the maintenance division, was to keep things moving. “You can solve problems on the fly, out in the field,” he said. “If you wait until everything’s perfect, you’ve waited too long.”
While building roads and bridges is the bread and butter of any DOT highway engineer, Dority’s choice of his favorite projects seems a little unusual.
One favorite was the I-95 rest area in Kittery, that welcomes many of the millions of visitors to Maine each year. There were many site constraints, and Dority ended up with a layout where traffic circulates around the central buildings. “That way, if you miss a parking space you want, you can come around again.” It’s a characteristically pragmatic design, finding an advantage in an apparent disadvantage of tight parameters.
He followed the recent reconstruction of I-295 from Topsham to Gardiner with great interest, because the original stretch of interstate was one of his big design projects and one of the few interstate sections in New England with a concrete surface.
During his long career at MaineDOT, Dority worked on projects literally from Kittery to Fort Kent. Asked if the 1960s and 70s, when the state was completing the interstate highway system and erecting several notable bridges, was a heroic age for highway builders, he demurs, but notes that changing standards and rules have made things quite different today.
The construction of I-295 through Portland, that involved filling wetlands and demolishing numerous apartment buildings, would probably not be possible today, he said. Environmental standards, and sensitivity to displacing homes or businesses make new transportation routes more difficult to site. Even smaller projects like the Newcastle-Damariscotta bypass for Route 1 would not have been built so close to existing infrastructure, he said. “We went through shell heaps that would now require historic preservation studies, not to mention the wetlands,” he said.
Not all the changes have made things tougher for highway planners and building. Dority was always a stickler for safety, which he considers possibly the best reason to consider new or improved routing.
His favorite section of Maine’s interstate is the same Topsham-to-Gardiner stretch that was built with a concrete surface. It was one of the last major interstate sections completed, and by that time the federal government was supporting, and then requiring, enhanced safety features, including separately routed north and south roadways independently designed, breakaway signposts, protected abutments, and improved guardrails. A crash involving Gov. John Baldacci early in his term did less damage because of the slope gradient employed during construction, he noted.
“Safety is really a major part of what we’re supposed to be doing for the public,” he said.
Dority is also a strong supporter of non-engineered safety initiatives, and he singles out former state Senator Christine Savage’s many years of work, ultimately successful, to require seat belt use for all drivers and passengers.
“There are 15 to 20 travelers on Maine’s highways that will not be killed in crashes because of her efforts,” Dority said. When the final bill was enacted, Dority circulated a letter thanking the senator, and got every engineer at MaineDOT to sign it.
Money, and the lack of it, has been a major transportation issue for years, and it’s not just the current shortfall in fuel taxes that’s driving the issue, Dority said. “We’ve known for a long time this day was coming.”
While all states are struggling with transportation funding, Maine’s particular problem stems in large part from the number of bridges built in the 1920 and ’30s, and which now need replacing. “That was when we were building the system, when we created the statewide network,” he said.
Most bridges have a 60- to 70-year lifespan, so the bills for replacements are now falling due. While MaineDOT has been trying to extend the useful life of bridges through strategic repairs and renovations, sometimes that isn’t enough.
“Back when these bridges were built, a 10-ton truck was a heavy load, and most freight moved by rail,” Dority said. “Now, trucks deliver everything and 100,000-pound loads are legal. We have a lot of bridges that weren’t built to stand that kind of stress.”
With characteristic initiative, Dority advocated for a greatly enhanced bridge inspection program. “What you’re worried about most is the prospect of catastrophic failure,” such as the collapse of an interstate highway bridge over the Mianus River in Connecticut in the 1980s, and the more recent collapse of the I-35W span in downtown Minneapolis.
But it turns out that engineers aren’t automatically qualified to be bridge inspectors, he said. “We built the bridges, but we’re not allowed to inspect them without taking a specific federal course.” So, starting with himself, state engineers went back to school, and MaineDOT now has a large team of certified bridge inspectors who travel the state regularly.
While the need to rapidly replace the old Waldo-Hancock bridge carrying Route 1 over the Penobscot River roused considerable concern in the Maine Legislature, Dority considers it one of the success stories for increased vigilance about bridge conditions. “You never want to get to the point where you have to close a major bridge for safety reasons. You want to know what you have to do, and when.”
The Penobscot Narrows project, as the new bridge came to be known, was among Dority’s last hurrahs as chief engineer.
Alden Small had by that time retired, but said he regularly heard about Dority’s skill in drafting change orders and problem-solving on almost a daily basis, as Maine’s two largest bridge building companies, Reed & Reed and Cianbro, worked together for the first time.
“That was one of his finest hours,” Small said. “He was really in his element.”
Dority plays down his role in that project: “I was proud to have a small part in the Penobscot Narrows Bridge, but only a small part.” He notes that the legislature has since increased bridge replacement funding through the TransCap program – a funding vehicle initiated by the MBTA – but says “There is not enough to do the job and still fund the other necessary services provided by state government.” Tolls, one of the traditional means of paying for bridges, including intercity spans in Portland-South Portland and Bangor-Brewer, as well as Memorial Bridge in Augusta, have fallen out of favor both with drivers and political leaders. “The issue is going to be with us for a long time,” he said.
Financial pressures have required the state to be constantly looking for efficiencies –without compromising the quality of service.
A big change in the maintenance department, he said, has been the changeover from sand to salt as the major winter maintenance tool, including pre-storm applications of brine mixture to prevent icing.
Not only do the roads clear faster, but the amount of labor required, both for application and later cleanup, is considerably reduced. “We have smaller crews, but they’re even busier than before,” he said. “It’s something we had to do, but we’re getting more out of our winter maintenance dollars, too,” he said.
As he looks back at his career, Dority finds much to be satisfied about from the technical standpoint, but that is not the part of the job that he misses.
“It’s the people,” he said. “The employees you see every day, and the ones you’ve worked with for years.” He recalls his retirement party, which drew a large crowd of admirers. “That was really something,” he said. “I’ll always remember that.”
Since retirement, he’s been offered a number of consulting opportunities, but since they all required significant travel, he turned them down. He seems content with the idea that his working career may, in fact, be over.
It isn’t always like that for engineers. Warren Foster, for instance, retired from MaineDOT but then discovered it didn’t suit him, so he went back to work as executive director of the state Board of Licensure for Professional Engineers, that sets licensing standards and education requirements. It was a role that reunited him with Dority regularly, since the chief engineer is an ex-officio member. Dority was “a highly involved board member,” Foster recalls, for 13 years.
On his retirement, the board memorialized Dority’s service, recalling his MaineDOT positions as head of Interstate and Urban Arterial Design, Division 1 engineer for maintenance in Presque Isle, director of the Bureau of Maintenance and Operations, and deputy chief engineer, before his last posting as chief engineer.
Alden Small said that among Dority’s notable characteristics is that “He was always looking out for his people. He considered himself to be responsible for the success of their work, as well as his own.”
And despite his propensity to get projects off the drawing board more quickly than some of his peers, Small said, “John was always thoughtful in his approach. He didn’t cut corners. He did things the right way.”
Warren Foster thinks there may be one more job for Dority to accomplish: documenting what went on at MaineDOT during his tenure. “He has the most extraordinary power of recall. We might be talking about something that happened years ago that I could hardly remember, but John had it all at his fingertips. Someone should get him to write it down.”