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(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) Carlos Braceras, executive director for UDOT speaks to assembled group of dedicated bike riders at Salt Lake Central UTA station last summer to launch a statewide tour to try to improve road safety for bicyclists.
Utah’s highway boss wants more transparency, collaboration

Culture shift » Wants more transparency, quality, collaboration with others.

First Published Sep 23 2013 01:01 am • Last Updated Feb 14 2014 11:34 pm

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.

At a glance

UDOT at a glance:

» 1,800 employees.

» Oversees the design, construction and maintenance of Utah’s 6,000-mile system of highways.

» It has four official strategic goals: Preserve roads and bridges, optimize mobility, zero fatalities and strengthen the economy.

» Executive director is adding six new areas of emphasis: integrated transportation, collaboration, education, transparency, quality, and operational excellence.

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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.

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"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.

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