RICHMOND, VA (AP) Philip A. Shucet had a huge mess to clean up when he took over the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT).
Only one in five highway construction projects was being completed on time. Half were coming in over budget — the most startling example being the Springfield Mixing Bowl, which had doubled to approximately $700 million.
VDOT’s six-year construction plan was a sham, a bloated list of projects that remained stalled because of growing maintenance needs and relatively static state resources. Many Virginians could not understand why projects never made it from paper to asphalt.
Three years later, Shucet is drawing rave reviews as he leaves his state job to spend more time with his family in Virginia Beach — and eventually return to the private sector.
“I’m very proud of his record,” Gov. Mark R. Warner said after announcing he had reluctantly accepted Shucet’s resignation. “With his team, he’s helped turn around VDOT and has gone a long way toward restoring the public’s trust and the legislature’s trust.”
Sen. Martin E. Williams, R-Newport News and chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, is among Shucet’s admirers in the legislature.
“He has done a tremendous service to Virginia and I hope people learn to appreciate it,” Williams said. “He’s been a hell of a reformer.”
Shucet often expressed frustration with the highway agency’s meager resources, but he said that had nothing to do with his decision to resign effective July 1. The 2005 General Assembly approved an $848-million infusion for highways — a fraction of long-term transportation needs estimated at $25 billion.
“The time is just right for me to head on home,” he told The Associated Press. “I’m not leaving because I’m frustrated, mad or upset. I always saw this situation as about a three-year deal.”
Shucet previously worked for the highway departments in Arizona and his native West Virginia. He gave up a lucrative position as executive vice president of a global engineering and energy management company to take on the challenge of turning around VDOT.
Warner said that under Shucet’s leadership, the percentage of highway projects completed on time has increased to 74 percent through the third quarter of this year. On-budget performance has improved to 81 percent, he said.
Shucet also brought a dose of reality to VDOT’s six-year plan, Warner said. Since 2001, the six-year construction program has been cut by more than one-third.
“When we came in the six-year plan was a disaster — a wish list,” the governor said. “It had no credibility. The six-year plan is now a real plan. Folks may not like it because it doesn’t have a lot of projects, but it’s what we can afford.”
He also credited Shucet with improving the morale of VDOT’s 10,000-plus employees and building a strong management team to continue the reforms.
Corporate executives who have pressed for improvements to a decaying transportation network that they say threatens Virginia’s economy said they are sorry to see Shucet go.
“I think the business community has reacted well to Phil and vice versa,” said Michael G. Anzilotti, president of Virginia Commerce Bancorp Inc., in Arlington, and co-chairman of the Greater Washington Board of Trade’s transportation committee.
“He has listened to us, he is aware of the needs, and I think he’s frustrated with the General Assembly’s inability to react to problems and to make transportation our top priority.”
Warner’s announcement came approximately two weeks after he received a letter in which Shucet declared, “My assignment is complete.”
Warner said he tried mightily to persuade Shucet to stay until the end of the governor’s term in January.
In the May 18 letter, Shucet summarized the progress VDOT has made and said the department’s employees deserve the credit. In a separate letter to employees, Shucet likened the agency to a fine piece of silverware that had grown tarnished.
“When that happens, you get out a polishing cloth, put in a little elbow grease, and shine it up again. That cloth has been in your hands. You applied the elbow grease — a lot of it. You made things happen. And, now you’re shining,” Shucet wrote.
Warner said he will appoint an interim commissioner from within VDOT’s ranks by the end of the week. He also said he hopes the next governor will follow his lead and appoint a professional roadbuilder to the job rather than use it to reward a political supporter.
Hugh Keogh, president of the Virginia Chamber of Commerce, agreed.
“It raises the stakes for the next governor of Virginia to not only find the right personality but to also come to grips that the transportation issue is probably the chief concern among business people in Virginia,” Keogh said.
Replacing Shucet with a political person would be a “frightful error,” he said.
Shucet said that after enjoying time off with his family, he will look for a job in the private sector.
“Obviously, I need a job,” he said. “I’m far from being ready to retire.”