Steve Hutchinson is so close to retirement he can hear the footsteps. Within a month he will reach the 90-point plateau (his age plus years of service) and qualify for afternoon fishing trips and winters in Arizona.
He has other plans. And they don’t include membership in AARP.
“If you’re going to keep working, you want to stay motivated. So I’m really looking forward to the next three years. It will be an exciting time for transportation in Idaho,” he says.
There’s nothing like a full plate of projects and the promise of re-engineering transportation throughout Idaho to provide the motivation. Hutchinson has been intimately involved in the program planning of the governor’s Connecting Idaho initiative. Hutchinson and the Division of Highways will be responsible for turning new funding options (GARVEE bonding authority) into additional lane miles, interchanges and bridges.
Connecting Idaho will change the transportation landscape by compressing nearly three decades of highway construction projects into 10 years. The biggest challenge Hutchinson foresees is managing that flurry of activity while fulfilling the commitments of ITD’s Statewide Transportation Improvement Program (STIP) – a five-year plan for highway construction – while maintaining and operating the existing system.
It’s a tall order. And that’s why Hutchinson
hasn’t booked a retirement party yet.
First, the division and transportation department will need to reassess the way they do business, taking full advantage of emerging technology and ensuring that the organization operates efficiently within the existing contingent of employees and state budget authorization.
“We will have to look at what we do and see if anything is an impediment to what we should be doing,” Hutchinson says.
Second, the division and department must determine how to manage GARVEE (Grant Anticipation Revenue Vehicle) funds to achieve the goals of Connecting Idaho.
“The question is whether management will come from Headquarters or continue to happen at the district level. We’ll discuss that with district engineers in the near future,” Hutchinson says.
Within the parameters of Connecting Idaho, another question surfaces: “Will ITD, or more specifically a team of two or three people, manage the program, or will the department contract with a management company to provide those services?
Either way, the private sector will be “fully engaged,” Hutchinson says.
“We’ll have to manage more consultants – they already do about 70 percent of our development now, so we’re already providing project oversight and guidance. But we’ll do more of that, either directly, or indirectly through a program management firm. That is one of the key decisions we still have to make…
“We have 20 equations and 20 unknowns… variables that won’t be determined for several years.
“At the same time, we cannot lose sight of all the other important things we do, such as bridge inspections, highway maintenance, rest areas… We still have the responsibility to maintain the system we have.”
The public expects Idaho’s transportation system to be both progressive and responsive. The system’s stakeholders and owners will continue to influence how it operates and grows, Hutchinson says.
“We need to be a part of the community instead of somebody that passes through it. That’s why context sensitive solutions and the public involvement process are so important.” Both will be hallmarks of the Connecting Idaho initiative.
He also envisions an even greater emphasis on the team approach to meeting those challenges – working collaboratively as an extension of the process improvement teams ITD established in the late ’90s.
“We’ll really look to people who are innovative and able to work outside their professional expertise. We will need people who are technology savvy.”
Toward that end, ITD will continue its commitment to the Engineer In Training program, an internal process of growing and grooming professional engineers. The profession already is struggling to meet the demands nationally, and the pressure to produce more qualified engineers – especially in the public sector – will only intensify, Hutchinson predicts.
“We need people who are fully equipped and trained because more will be demanded of them. Training will be a critical tool in the future so we can equip them for that demand.”
The ability to retain highly qualified employees is being severely tested by a public salary structure that fails to keep pace with private industry.
Hutchinson has witnessed the drain on ITD’s professional ranks – engineers, right-of-way agents, and environmental specialists – to private firms and local government agencies that offer more lucrative salaries and benefits.
“Our challenge will be to keep the top people we already have on board,” he says.
The next three to five years promise to be “real exciting times for ITD and transportation in Idaho. The Division of Highways will be the conduit to give people access to the various modes of travel. And the division will play a big role in development of the multimodal system,” he predicts.
With those challenges and opportunities on the horizon, Hutchinson has moved retirement from the short list to long-term planning.