YPT Mentor Interviews – Kevin Burke, Local Policy and Technology Engineer, IDOT

This week’s interview in YPT’s “Better Know a Director” series is with Kevin Burke, Local Policy & Technology Engineer, of the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT).  Kevin is a national expert in transportation policy and technology, having come to the field with an unconventional background.

AP: You have an interesting job at IDOT.  Can you explain the different roles of your position?

KB: I’m the Local Policy and Technology Engineer for IDOT’s Bureau of Local Roads and Streets.  I wear two different hats.  On the policy side I work with local government agencies in Illinois, including counties, municipalities, and townships.  We ensure that the local agencies are following all Federal and State rules and regulations for using transportation funding.  We also ensure that IDOT’s own policies are robust enough to allow local agencies the flexibility to execute the work they need to do in the most cost efficient manner possible while using their funding to maintain their transportation systems at safe and sustainable levels.  On the technology side I am the Program Director for the Illinois Local Technical Assistance Program (LTAP) center.  The LTAP is a national program with 58 centers across the country, 1 in every State, 1 in Puerto Rico, and 7 in the Tribal Nations.  As the Director of the Illinois LTAP center, I serve LTAP’s mission to make technology, best practice methods, and training available to all local transportation agencies for their benefit.

AP: The two main roles of your job aren’t necessarily something that you learn in school.  How did you get into these roles?  Were their certain experiences you had?

KB: It’s IDOT Bureau of Local Roads mission to support local agencies in implementation of their Federal and State transportation programs.  We work on a daily basis with the local agencies.  We learn through mutual experience.  On any given day we might encounter issues in environmental impact, funding, construction, or transportation design, sometimes all in the same day.  There is always a new daily issue.  In our bureau you get a very broad spectrum of experiences.  Illinois is a demographically diverse state.  We have local agencies that are very rural and dispersed, and we also have North America’s third largest mega-region with the City of Chicago and its surrounding areas.  Each local agency faces very different issues.  Yet that’s our bureau’s goal and mission, to support each and every one of them.  You learn a lot just through the daily interactions with each local agency.

AP: How did you first get into transportation?

KB: Well, it was definitely an unintentional career choice.  My undergrad degree is in chemistry.  After college I came back home to Springfield and interviewed for a chemist position at IDOT in the Analytical Chemistry Lab as well as the Bituminous Chemistry Lab for about 5 to 6 years before I moved over to the Bureau of Local Roads.

In IL, the P.E. license allows you to sit for the exam if you have an applicable science degree and 8 years of experience.  Through my experience with IDOT I realized that’s where I wanted to be and sat for the PE exam and passed it.  That allowed me to get into the engineering track within IDOT.

AP: Because of your unconventional background have you ever had to overcome initial skepticism of your abilities?  Did classically trained civil engineers and planners treat you differently?

KB: No, not really.  Civil engineering is such a broad degree that it can only give you basic concepts and theories in college.  However you really start learning when you’re in the real world of transportation and civil engineering. You’ll have people who are subject matter experts (SME’s) in hot-mix asphalt (HMA) vs. geometric design vs. traffic signal design.  Those people are definitely SME’s and you’re able to talk to them.  I talk to SME’s to help me resolve complex issues, but there’s not a civil engineer out there who knows everything about everything in the field.  The benefit of being in Local Roads is you get that broad exposure to the full spectrum of different transportation issues.  I like to say that I know a little bit about a lot of things, but I don’t know a lot about any one thing.  My level is not as in-depth as some engineers get into, but in the policy side that’s a real good fit.  Policy requires you to know several issues at once to see how they interact.  In some ways it’s good that I didn’t come up through the traditional civil engineering degree track because I didn’t over focus in one area as opposed to getting more diverse experience and a broader perspective.

AP: Is there any specific skill that you had to learn or focus on in your current role in dealing with local agencies? 

KB: The biggest issue is being able to craft a policy that gives the Local agencies the flexibility they need. You have to be able to be open to other ideas.  Not just write a policy and assume it’s the way to go.  We get a lot of good input from the IL Association of County Engineers and the IL Municipal League (IML) – Public Works Committee (PWC).  When we get ready to revise or create policies, we take our draft policies to those groups and discuss them, collaboratively hash out the issues.  We have to weigh what the issues are, versus the implementation, versus what the regulatory requirements actually are and balance those two things to allow the local agencies to perform the work they need to do, while still meeting all the federal or state regulations.  It gets back to being able to work with different people and not making your original idea a sacred cow or best idea.  We rely on that collaborative process.

AP: While working collaboratively do you get involved with any private companies?  Or is it only public agencies that contribute?

KB: A lot of our local agencies, especially the smaller ones, are represented by consulting engineering firms.  That’s their municipal representative, a consultant.  They sit on the IML-PWC.  We also partner with ACEC-IL.  We just revised our QBS policy with help from a working group within ACEC.  I’m involved in a lot of different research projects as well.  I always try to bring someone from the private side as well that has appropriate expertise.  I’m going to take the advice from whatever SME’s I can get, whether public, private, or academic sector.  We have a lot of good engineering firms in IL that are full of good ideas and understand the daily project level of getting projects design, built, and constructed.  They’re very efficient at what they do.

AP: When it comes to new technologies, how do you balance the need for innovation versus the need for stability and trusted technologies?

KB: There are so many new technologies out there.  I try to prioritize based on what my customers, the local agencies, actually want.  When I’m approached by a local agency, I work with them to evaluate an experimental feature or new product. We try to make it easy on them to incorporate that new product or technology.  Everybody will eventually need something new to solve a problem.  We can’t eliminate somebody from trying something because IDOT think’s it might not work.  We try to allow local agencies to move forward with their evaluations and then get their feedback to help other local agencies.  In IL, especially the counties, our local agencies have very solid relationships with each other and talk regularly about what works and doesn’t work.  Just by meeting with them on a regular basis you get great feedback on what technology works or doesn’t work.  You put your focus on technology that seems to be working and accepted by more agencies, versus those technologies that may work but are generally being abandoned by agencies.

If something is not broken do you still try to fix it or improve it?  That’s where we’re always looking for innovations.  Part of my job is to try to meet with people in the industry.  Bridge inspections are a major issue across North America.  Everyone recognizes the ability to use a mobile device or tablet in the field to help record bridge inspection reports, allowing electronic submittal of reports from the field to comply with federal reporting requirements.  The problem is, in order for us to accept that data, we need to have the resources within IDOT to accept that data.  Most public agencies, with their reduced state budgets, are not able to have the same level of staff and resources available for their use.  Everything is being prioritized, everybody recognizes the mobile/tablet way is a good avenue, but we don’t have the resources to go that way here yet.  We made a big step forward going from a mainframe to web based database for bridge data, but we would like to still go the mobile/cloud route.  If you recognize there is a system that isn’t working the best it can and there is available tech to fix it, you still need the ability to acquire/apply resources.  Sometimes those resources aren’t available to apply.  So you need to keep these tech opportunities on your radar screen so when resources become available you can get the tech you need.

AP: What do you see is the single most pressing issue facing transportation in the next 5 years? 

KB: Without a doubt it’s funding.  Federal, state, and private funding sources are all reduced.  Most state funding is supplied via motor fuel tax (MFT).  As a general rule, MFT are collected at a flat rate, it’s that way at the federal level, in IL, and most states.  Some states have enabled a way to index their flat rate to some sort of gas price index or some other CPI.  I believe Oregon is working on a vehicle miles travelled (VMT) type tax.  There’s a lot of talk of public-private-partnership (PPP) and more tolling.  FL and CA have implemented managed lanes, where you pay demand based pricing in the tolled lanes.  The main source of revenue though, the flat rate gas tax, are not providing enough funding from either the federal or state side.  As fuel efficiency has increased and there has been a reduction in overall VMT due to the economy, we’re simply collecting less money.  Illinois collects 19 cents a gallon, with a 2 cent diesel premium.  The Illinois MFT fund had collected $1.4 billion in 2007.  This past year in 2012 we collected only $1.2 billion.  That’s a significant decrease in the amount of revenue coming in, yet at the same time the costs of construction have increased and the maintenance demands of the system have increased.  Public agencies are feeling that squeeze where they can’t stretch their dollars as far.  There are agencies looking at reverting their paved roads back into gravel roads because they can’t afford to maintain them.  Those are issues that are driven directly by funding levels.  Our lawmakers will need to look at that and see how we can sustain a world-class infrastructure system and figure out how we can fund that for the long term.

AP: Kevin, thank you for your time today, it’s much appreciated.

KB: Absolutely, anytime.

Arthur Pazdan is a transportation geek, attempted polymath, and humbled surfer.  When he’s not paddling out, you can find him at fine coffee purveyors across the San Francisco Bay Area, dreaming of ways to bring our crumbling infrastructure into the 21st century.  Flying cars, here we come.                       @arthurpazdan        Arthur Pazdan on LinkedIn

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