Long Road 

The state's new VDOT director sees reforms take hold.

The next morning, he showed up for work at his usual 6:45 a.m. and put the matter out of his mind, leaving the politicians to worry about finding new revenues to build a 21st-century transportation system.

Shucet (pronounced shoo-KETT) has more immediate tasks to conquer. Gov. Mark R. Warner hired the Virginia Beach resident in April to restore credibility to the embattled Virginia Department of Transportation, a 10,000-person bureaucracy that has failed to produce many of the roads promised during the late 20th century.

VDOT's poor performance helped doom the referendum. Polls showed voters had little confidence that the state can deliver its transportation commitments. Long-range hopes for relieving traffic jams in Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia hinge in part on Shucet's ability to reform the agency.

"As disappointed as I was to see those referendums go down, they have zero impact on my job as commissioner," Shucet says in his office, overlooking the busy Broad Street exit ramp off I-95 in downtown Richmond. "We've still got $7 billion of construction projects to manage and administer, and we still have to build VDOT into a sustainable, great organization."

Shucet, 52, may be the most visible hire by Warner, who pledged during last year's campaign to overhaul VDOT. Warner retained a private firm to launch a nationwide search for a new commissioner. Shucet was chosen over 125 prospects.

Shucet was initially unwilling to even interview. He had a $250,000-a-year job with the Michael Baker Corp. and an impeccable reputation for turning around the giant engineering firm's poorly performing divisions. He had just bought a new house in Virginia Beach and was reluctant to move his family to Richmond or accept a 50 percent pay cut to become commissioner.

A conversation with his 92-year-old father, a retired shoe salesman, changed Shucet's mind.

"My dad said, 'What do you think would give your life the most meaning, doing the job you're doing now or being commissioner of the department?' " Shucet recalls. "That settled it for me. How often in your life do you get an opportunity that offers so much challenge and so much opportunity to do good things?"

Shucet, an affable man with a deep drawl rooted in West Virginia, represents a substantial departure from recent commissioners who have either risen to the top after decades at VDOT or were political allies of sitting governors.

Although Shucet has worked in transportation publicly and privately for 30 years, he is an outsider to VDOT. And he is steadfastly apolitical. Warner hopes those two characteristics will enable Shucet to reform the culture at VDOT and, as much as possible, remove politics from road-building decisions. Some of Shucet's predecessors have been criticized for advancing projects to curry favor with politicians.

"I want roads built on time and on budget," Warner says. "I want Phil to produce measurable results."

Since taking the job in April, Shucet has left little doubt he's in charge. He ousted two longtime deputy commissioners, saying they had "failed tests to show they would fit on my team." He has monitored his employees' personal use of the Internet while at work. This summer, he fired 25 for accessing pornography sites and suspended another 61 without pay for two weeks for averaging more than two hours a day on sites that were not related to their work.

"We're a business that's spending $14 million of taxpayers' money every day, and we have a duty to steward those dollars effectively," Shucet says. By and large, Shucet says he has found VDOT's work force to be competent and professional. But the agency has suffered from poor leadership, he adds, both internally and from politicians.

In-house, Shucet said he found a mazelike organization chart that left no individual manager responsible for results.

"To answer a question, I couldn't go out my door and put my hand on someone's shoulder," he said. "I had to get about 13 people together in a conference room.

"We had seven different divisions that worked in engineering alone," Shucet says. "They reported to three different assistant commissioners who reported to two different deputy commissioners. That's just stupid. Where's the accountability?"

Shucet has simplified the flow chart. He's given the directors of VDOT's nine regional offices bottom-line responsibility for meeting road-building schedules for projects in their districts.

Shucet also is devising a computer program that gives a daily update on each VDOT project and how close it is to meeting its deadline. The program is slated to go on the Internet early next year. Each project will contain the e-mail address of a manager the public may contact with questions.

"You talk about restoring credibility, well, here it is," Shucet says. "It's exciting and frightening at the same time because this makes us totally transparent." Solving the political problems at VDOT will fall more on Warner than Shucet. Controversial decisions by Warner's two predecessors are widely blamed for hurting the agency.

Republican George F. Allen, who served as governor from 1994-98, wanted to cut state government by contracting some of its services to private industry, which he said could run things more efficiently. He offered an early retirement program, which hundreds of VDOT's top engineers accepted, only to come back and work for the state as high-paid private consultants. The program stripped VDOT of much of its technical capability and, according to one state audit, increased the cost of projects by as much as 45 percent.

Republican Jim Gilmore, who served from 1998 to early this year, was criticized for being unresponsive to traffic congestion in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads. In response, he pressured VDOT to promise more new roads, even though the state couldn't afford to build them.

Warner said the raised expectations ultimately undercut VDOT's credibility and resulted in a six-year road building plan that was a political "wish list." In May, Warner and Shucet slashed the plan by a third, eliminating 179 promised projects and delaying 117 more worth a total $3 billion.

"Within the bounds of human ability, we've got a plan that's realistic," Shucet says. His goal is to deliver it "with 100 percent flawless execution." His efforts so far have won mostly glowing reviews.

"I give him high marks," says Delegate John A. Rollison III, R-Prince William, chairman of the House Transportation Committee.

"He's been candid, open and has done a good job communicating a strong mission statement," Rollison says. "His challenge is that each part of the state has high expectations and the amount of money available is nowhere near the amount needed to meet those expectations."

If anything, the pool of money may be ebbing. VDOT has borrowed heavily against federal money it expects to receive in the future. And the U.S. government, seeking to save cash, will reduce highway funds to Virginia by $116 million next year.

Virginia is the only state where a governor cannot serve successive terms. Chief executives may choose to appoint their own highway commissioner. So Shucet's chances of bringing lasting reform to VDOT may hinge on his ability to outlast Warner, who will leave office in 2006.

Warner hopes Shucet's apolitical background will make him a shoo-in with the next governor — whether a Democrat or a Republican.

Shucet, who rents a one-room apartment in Richmond and returns to Virginia Beach on weekends to be with his family, isn't worrying about staying on for the long haul. "That's a ways off," he says. "My agenda is here and now." S


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