Published on August 8th, 2017 | by UC&D Magazine0
Q&A With Carlos Braceras
UDOT’s Executive Director since May 2013 is confident about the future of Utah’s transportation system.
The last time UC&D conducted an in-depth interview with Utah Department of Transportation Executive Director Carlos Braceras was for our June 2013 cover story – shortly after he took over UDOT’s top spot from John Njord, whom he served with as Deputy Director for a dozen years.
His primary goals four years ago, which focused on UDOT’s four strategic goals – Preserve Infrastructure; Improve Mobility; Strengthen Economy; Zero Fatalities – haven’t changed so much as progressed, with new ideas and innovations continually hatching throughout all sectors of the massive 1,600-employee Department.
The New Jersey native came to Utah in 1981 with four college buddies – all graduates from the University of Vermont to ski for a year, with absolutely zero intention of staying long-term.
“Five of us graduated…and said we were going out West to ski for a year. I ended up at Snowbird, met my wife there…been here ever since.”
He worked as a well-site geologist for a while prior to the oil and gas industry tanking and decided to go back to school at the University of Utah for a Civil Engineering degree. In 1986 he took a job at UDOT as a Field Engineer in then-District 1 in Ogden and gradually worked his way up the corporate ladder.
Braceras has served in a wide array of positions – Materials Lab Engineer, Design Engineer, Hydraulic Engineer, Chief Geotechnical Engineer, Roadway Engineer, Project Manager for Legacy Highway,Region 3 Director. Each stop brought a new experience, another layer of education, all of which comes in handy when trying to relate to myriad work and interpersonal challenges.
The 58-year-old said he’s thoroughly enjoying his time as Executive Director and has great optimism about the future of transportation in the Beehive State.
UC&D: You’ve had a lengthy, diverse career at UDOT, including serving as Executive Director since May 2013. What are some things that have been accomplished during this recent period for which you have a high level of satisfaction?
Braceras: I would put two legislative accomplishments in that arena. The primary seatbelt law (effective May 2015) is one that is incredibly significant. It was (a bill) that we were a little more aggressive on than in the past. I would also say the (five cent) gas tax increase (effective January 2016), which is actually indexed now. Between the transportation investment fund and the transportation fund, if federal funding stays flat – where it is today – I can safely say the state road system has a financially sustainable transportation system here, and into the near future. I don’t think any other state can say that. I’m really proud about that. We only got there because of the trust the Legislature has in this organization to be responsible with the taxpayer’s money. They know they’re going to get good product for the investment.
UC&D: 2015 sounds like a good year for UDOT from a legislative standpoint.
Braceras: That was a big session. We got a gas tax increase, we got the primary seat belt law…we also got something that’s not talked about a lot…a NEPA (National Environmental Protection Agency) assignment. It’s the authority from the (state) legislature to work with the federal government to allow this Department to be the decision-maker on future environmental documents. It’s a big deal. It’s taken a lot of work by a lot of people in this organization and our federal highway partners. We’ve had delegation for CATX projects – those are simple projects that make up 90% of our projects. We’ve been doing that since 2008, but this now means on future EISs and EIAs we will be the decision-makers. There are only five states that have done that. I’m proud that this DOT is willing to step forward. We’re going to improve the environment and our communities and do it in as efficient a way as possible.
UC&D: What are some other ‘hot button’ items you’ve been working on implementing?
Braceras: Internally, we’re developing a learning culture. We’ve hired a Chief Learning Officer and we’re about to open a UDOT Learning Center – a physical location where people can come and learn about what we do. We want to develop a learning plan for every employee at every position. We want to give employees opportunities that they thought they might not have in the past. We elevate the organization by elevating individuals. There are hundreds of things, amazing things that go on every day in this organization. It builds off of the culture we’re working to establish in recognizing the value of every individual. My job is to set a direction where employees can excel.
Another thing, we’re primarily looked at as a roads department. I want people to understand that transportation for us is all modes. We want to focus on integrated transportation. I believe we have an excellent transit system, an excellent road system and an active transportation system, but have we worked to integrate those together? For people, it’s not about getting in a car and going somewhere, it’s about their journey whether it be a quality of life element, or to go to their jobs, or to purchase something…there is a purpose behind every trip. (UDOT) can’t be working on that one silo, we have to be thinking more holistically in working with partners. If UTA is successful, we’re successful, and that’s an element I’ve tried to bring some focus to. The reason we exist as a DOT is to grow the economy and improve quality of life. Our values drive how we do things.
UC&D: Work-zone safety is a topic UDOT has been aggressively promoting in recent years. How would you characterize progress made in this area and the relationship you have with contractors regarding safety?
Braceras: The longer I’m in this business the more I am appreciative of the firms here. I really believe we have the best contractors in the country. We could not have done design-build, we could not have done CM/GC, we could not have done price-plus-time bidding if we did not have contractors who are willing to say, ‘you know, it’s different, but we’ll try it’. They are the ones that help make us successful. When it comes to work-zone safety, our contractors are leaders in this area and something they are very passionate about. Are we at the place we need to be? We’ll never be there. You’re always reaching to be better – every day. As soon as you start to become mechanical or routine about it you lose that focus. You need to be on edge with work-zone safety. Our employees – we have 1,600 at the Department, but with contractors and consultants it’s 12,000 – all need to work together. You’ll never hear me say we’re there. We’re really good, but… we’re going to keep working it.
UC&D: Utah’s Legislature passed a $1 billion bond during the 2017 legislative session. Actions like this, along with the recent implementation of the new
fuel tax program show that the state is committed to transportation. How would you characterize the relationship UDOT has with the legislature as a whole?
Braceras: It’s a very positive relationship. There is a great deal of respect the legislature has for this Department and its employees – this is the collective employee, the 12,000 – and they trust us. The legislature is not going to appropriate to you the public’s money unless they trust that you’re going to accomplish what they want. That’s what was ringing loud and clear in my ears (when I heard about the $1 billion bond). We didn’t ask for this, but the legislature likes the product this organization delivers and they want more of it and they want it faster. So there is a little bit of pressure on us. We have to deliver, but I know we will deliver.
UC&D: How will the $1 billion bond money be spent?
Braceras: It will be spent over four years. We’ll do an issuance by the end of (June) for $47 million, and we’ll do a bigger number in January. We look at our projects and ask how fast we can spend it. We look at actual revenues a project needs and make up that delta with the bonding amount. This is money for the Transportation Investment Fund so it’s for major capacity projects. It will accelerate three projects we already had programmed. This organization does big things; big things take money. But it’s more expensive not to build them.
UC&D: That seems to be the mentality of Utah’s government in the past 20-25 years – that a solid, well-managed transportation system is vital to a thriving economy.
Braceras: Our legislature and governors firmly believe that infrastructure is one of the basic functions of government.
UC&D: You’ve said before that UDOT’s stellar reputation is a product of a strong employee base, along with great industry partners.
Braceras: The Utah Department of Transportation and its partners are recognized around the country for how we delivery our projects. We have done innovative contracting…we deliver our projects faster and with great quality. We have committed employees. We had a landslide recently on SR-12 from Panguitch to Escalante – it’s the lifeline between the communities. We had a team of maintenance and construction people working around the clock trying to hold the road together. We (recently) hosted a lunch down there for the employees and talked about all the different people it took for that project to be successful. Our transportation system works and it makes a difference for our state.
UC&D: How has the increase in gas tax money helped your overall program?
Braceras: We came up with (Level 1/ Level 2) designations when we did not have enough money to maintain all roads in the same way. Lower volume roads with few trucks we did not proactively maintain… we put money into heavily traveled roads. The gas tax has allowed us to be fiscally responsible because it’s a good conservative principal to keep roads in good condition. Good roads cost less, and it’s less liability passed to future generations. You don’t get a lot of parades for pavement rehabilitation jobs, but that’s okay because that’s one of our key responsibilities. We have a $24 billion asset value just in pavements. If you let it go to pot it costs so much more to maintain than if you just keep it in good condition.
UC&D: UDOT made a big splash with Accelerated Bridge Construction (ABC) a decade ago with innovations like moving large bridge structures into place via Self-Propelled Modular Transports (SPMTs), along with bridge sliding methods. What is the status with ABC construction and when is it utilized?
Braceras: We pushed it and actually required it in the beginning…the reason was to give multiple contractors the experience to do it. Now we bid our jobs at cost plus time…and ultimately that is what we were trying to get to. We don’t like to dictate means and methods when doing contracts. We want to tell a contractor what we want to achieve. The public’s price is important, but there is a cost to time. (ABC) is a tool in their toolbox to be competitive against each other.
UC&D: You were one of a handful of DOT Executive Directors to meet with President Donald Trump June 9 to discuss transportation policy practices. How did that go?
Braceras: The discussion was not about money, it was about process. Of the seven or so, only three were picked to have a discussion back and forth and I was the first to engage with the President. I was able to present him with some of the challenges we have with delivering our program. He listened, he jumped in with questions. It was back-and-forth…it wasn’t me just talking. He was interested and he’s obviously a man of action because he was looking quickly for solutions. It was fun.
UC&D: What kind of thought have you given to your future at UDOT and how many more years you want to serve in your present capacity?
Braceras: I love what I do. When you can do something that makes a difference…I really have no plans to leave this organization. But there is always a time…and when I get to where I lack inspiration or lack passion, then it is time for me to go. But I’m not lacking any of that right now.