‘We must prioritize like never before’
MBTA’s Maria Fuentes talks with newly appointed MaineDOT Commissioner David Bernhardt about the role innovation, prioritization and the $320 million funding gap will play in the department’s future.
When you started at MaineDOT, did you ever think you could be commissioner?
As a young engineer coming out of the University of Maine to work for MaineDOT, I was more focused on the engineering and technical side of the department. Being a typical engineer, I thought maybe one day I could be the chief engineer, but even that was a scary thought early on. It wasn’t until later in my career that I had an understanding of what a commissioner did and aspired to that position.
What do you believe is the number one job of Maine’s commissioner of transportation?
To lead MaineDOT to be one of the most trusted organizations in Maine through emphasis on core values of integrity, competence and service.
Is that different than what the number one job was in any of your previous positions with MaineDOT?
In my last two positions – director of engineering and operations and before that, director of maintenance and operations – leading with emphasis on the core values was the same. I was just more focused on the specific duties of the job – most recently, a production and engineering focus, and previous to that, a focus on making our bureau of maintenance and operations a leaner, more efficient organization.
You’ve worked under several different commissioners since you started with the department in the 80s. How do you think your management style will be similar/different from your former bosses?
I see my management style as a mix of the three commissioners with whom I have had the opportunity to work. One might have delegated more than another, whereas another was more hands-on. I would say that, in the past, I would have been one to set the direction and then delegate. I think the future will be a mix of hands-on and delegation, because the new executive office will be leaner than some in the past, with all of the same or more duties.
Do you think there is an advantage to having a commissioner that knows MaineDOT as well as you do? A disadvantage?
There are both advantages and disadvantages to coming up through the ranks of the department for the past 27 years. The advantages are knowing the inner workings of the department, knowing the staff, knowing personally many of our partners and stakeholders, knowing how the financing works at both the state and federal levels, and knowing the state and federal statutes and regulations pertaining to transportation. The disadvantage is that I can’t use “I’m new at this,” as an excuse, and I’m connected to anything that might be interpreted as a failure or mistake.
What innovations will you be proposing to implement at MaineDOT? Have you been following innovations in other states that you believe could be beneficial to Maine/MaineDOT?
MaineDOT, along with its partners, has always looked to innovate and has been a leader in New England and the northeast. Examples are: snow- and ice-fighting technologies; composite bridges; composite fishways; use of different reclamation strategies; warm mix asphalts; use of new asphalt binders; development of state standards and practical design methods more conducive to Maine’s rural nature; design-build and other innovative contracting procedures; our tri-state procurement processes; our “dashboard” or information-sharing system; and much more.
One of the responsibilities of the chief engineer is to establish and maintain engineering excellence through innovation, research and calculated risk-taking. So, we are always looking. We do work closely with, and participate on, many national committees, and we’ll continue to do so, especially with those committees where the results might be getting more done with the funds available.
What are your thoughts about an east-west highway for Maine?
With the improvements to our border crossings with Canada, and continuous improvements to the ports of Searsport and Eastport, it’s important for the economy of Maine that we improve our east-west highway connections. Some of this can be done with improvements to existing corridors or short connections of new construction, such as from I-395 to Route 9. Any new construction of significance would need a funding source other than regular federal and state resources. This would be one where a public-private partnership is the way to go, and these partnerships should become more viable as our economy rebounds.
About the role transit can play in a largely rural state?
Though we are largely a rural state, transit does play a role, and has been successful in our urban centers, as have initiatives such as the Island Explorer and GO MAINE, among others. However, because we are a rural state, transit is not going to work everywhere, and if a business plan shows it’s not viable, we aren’t going to try it just for the sake of trying it. Then again, if the future is five dollars-plus for a gallon of gas, transit could play a much larger role, as the convenience of driving one’s own vehicle is outweighed by the cost, and transit becomes a more attractive mode. This would apply to passenger rail – the Downeaster – as well.
Do you think Maine will find a private partner to help develop a facility at Sears Island and/or Mack Point?
I would hope to think that yes, we will see someone stepping up who sees the great opportunity at Searsport. The department will be doing whatever it can do to get the word out about those opportunities, and we will work closely with whomever steps up with a viable plan.
There has been a lot of talk about efficiencies and whether or not Maine can ‘find’ the money it needs to fix our roads or bridges or whether the funding side of the problem is bigger than possible efficiencies (a $320 million funding gap). You have helped MaineDOT accomplish a lot on this front already. Do you think there are substantial gains yet to be made through efficiencies?
There are still efficiencies to be had within the department as well as employing more of those innovations I discussed earlier that give our infrastructure longer life, lower maintenance costs, and less capital costs for road miles treated. Ultimately, the efficiencies and innovations will solve only a portion of the problem. We must prioritize like never before, and develop realistic goals that are based on the needs of our customers.
How would you describe the state of the MaineDOT budget?
It is interesting to note that even without bonding in this budget proposal, with the money available in capital we will be able to match all anticipated federal funding. By setting priorities, leveraging MaineDOT’s funding with others, sticking to the basics of keeping our bridges safe, preserving what has been improved to date, and improving that infrastructure that will help economic development and quality of life, I’m optimistic that there will be something for everyone in this budget.
What is your favorite stretch of road in Maine? Favorite harbor?
My favorite stretch, that is hard to say, but if I had to pick a few . . . in northern Maine it would be Route 11 from Sherman to Fort Kent, probably because of the many days I’ve spent working to make improvements to that corridor. In eastern Maine it would be Route 9, “the Airline,” across “the Whale’s Back” and through the blueberry fields, or Route 15 through Blue Hill to Deer Isle/Stonington. In western Maine, it would be the scenic vistas of Route 4 to Rangeley, and Route 201 through Jackman to the Canadian border. In southern Maine, it would be Route 1 in early spring or late fall when the traffic is manageable. In midcoast Maine, there is my family’s favorite, Route 32 out through Jefferson and Waldoboro to New Harbor and Pemaquid, where we sometimes spend the day at the beach, hanging out on the rocks near Pemaquid Point Light and eating at Shaw’s Fish & Lobster Wharf in New Harbor, watching the lobstermen bring in their catch.
What do you drive? How many cars in your family? How many licensed drivers? Any pilots or sea captains?
I drive a Hyundai Tucson. Believe it or not, we have five vehicles in the family – mine, my wife’s, one each for my two daughters and, for hauling stuff around, a pick-up truck. If you drive by the house you might think there’s a party going on.