Allen D. Biehler, the new Pennsylvania Secretary of the Department of Transportation (PennDOT), made a good impression during his initial meeting with hundreds of contractors and other vendors at Associated Pennsylvania Constructors’ Spring Conference.
Biehler’s much-anticipated address took place during the opening general session of the Pennsylvania Transportation Industry Spring Conference at the Hershey Lodge & Convention Center, the first week of April. Biehler, in what could have passed for an inaugural address, pledged to streamline the department’s operation and make PennDOT more vendor and contractor-friendly.
“I’ve only been on the job eight weeks,” said the former Transportation Planner for the city of Pittsburgh and former vice president of DMJM+Harris Inc. — national specialists in transportation engineering. “I am a great believer in straight talk. If we are doing great, tell us. If not, tell us that, too. A clean, clear flow of information leads to a better working relationship.”
Biehler, who has 34 years of experience in transportation engineering, planning, construction and public transportation management, pledged to streamline the bidding process.
“In 2003, we anticipate only $1.25 billion in federal dollars for spending projects, not the $1.55 billion we had originally expected. We need to make sure we make the best use of those dollars. I anticipate that we will have less gigantic projects. Instead, we will have a whole slew of smaller ones,” he told the crowd.
“And, we are going to make sure they get let. We are behind schedule for the first quarter so we will accelerate the process, if possible,” he advised the contractors. “And, I promise that we will not leave a lot of contracts to the end of the year.”
Biehler called upon all the PennDOT engineers in the audience to stand up as he told the crowd that he anticipated making changes at the district level as well. Not personnel changes, but modifications in processes, policies and procedures to make the contractors job easier.
“I intend on eliminating fiefdoms in the different districts and trying to standardize polices. We will be trying to fix the issues that are important to you. You folks are important to us. If we can’t figure out how to work with you, we have missed the boat,” Biehler, who holds a B.S. in Civil Engineering from the University of Pittsburgh, and a Master’s Degree equivalent from Yale University, told the crowd.
“I am putting red paint on the backs of all these district engineers. If you have a problem, shoot away,” he told the builders, as they erupted into laughter.
He promised that highway construction would be an integral part of Gov. Edward Rendell’s plan for Pennsylvania.
“Governor Rendell will use all the leverage we have and do everything we can to get every nickel we can out of Washington. Transportation is a bipartisan issue. Highways have a big role to play in Rendell’s plan for a new Pennsylvania. They not only provide jobs, but they also provide access to jobs, as well,” said Biehler, who as acting executive director of the Port Authority of Allegheny County directed all planning, engineering, and construction of the agency’s $500-million major capital improvement program.
“I understand the important of the private sector. You are a very important part of the department and what we do. Gov. Rendell has pledged to get the economy moving again. If we are not part of that, then who is? I intend to made sure we work effectively together so we can all be a part of the new Pennsylvania,” said Biehler.
While campaigning for governor, Rendell said that a key to creating and maintaining economic growth is building capacity in the state’s transportation network to move people and goods.
Rendell has called for rebuilding and expanding the Pennsylvania Turnpike and ensuring that existing interstate highways — some of which are now 50 years old — also get the rebuild that is necessary to meet the transportation loads of the 21st century.
Rendell also called for improving Pennsylvania’s passenger and freight rail capabilities to meet 21st century traffic projections.
The crowd reacted warmly to Biehler’s address.
“If he wants straight talk, he has come to the right place,” said Basil Shorb, president of APC.
Several contractors were pleased to hear about Biehler’s plans to streamline and standardize policies and procedures.
“He sounds like a straight shooter. He sounds approachable,” said Dave Maugle, of J.D. Eckman Inc., Altglen, PA. “He is ready to tackle the issue of the districts. We work in a lot of different districts around the state. We seem to have to do things differently in each of them. I think centralized policies would work best. A standardized way of doing things would be more efficient.”
Jerry Weidner, of Kinsley Construction, York, PA, agreed.
“I am tired of different districts and their different rules. We need one set of rules. I have been working on trying to get that for years. I also like the idea of a balanced schedule for bidding. Like he said, we’re going to get less money this year. The dollars aren’t there, but the ideas sure are,” said Weidner.
John McCaskie, of Swank Associated, bridge builders from New Kensington, PA, said he likes the fact that Biehler comes from the private sector.
“I’ve been privy to other meetings with him. He seems to be more committed to understanding our needs. I anticipate that we will have more access to him than to his predecessors,” said McCaskie.