Interview with Kirk Steudle, Director of Michigan Department of Transporation

Kirk Steudle, PE, the Director of the Michigan DOT, was recently named to the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine’s Future Interstate Study Committee.  This honor/responsibility is a continuation of the many positions he has held within the Michigan DOT as well as numerous leadership positions within transportation industry organizations.  I’ve seen Kirk speak and am impressed with his vision of the future and command of the challenges our industry faces.  I reached out to him when I learned he was named to the Future Interstate Study Committee and Kirk was kind enough to agree to the following interview.

You’re coming up on your 30th Anniversary with the DOT.  What did you do differently than your peers to rise all the way to becoming Director of the DOT?

Director Steudle: There was about a ten-year hiring freeze before I was hired which left a big void in the employee pool.  During the first year on the job my advisor told me there were going to be a lot of retirements in the DOT in the next five years and he was concerned he couldn’t get us recent hires trained fast enough to take over.  He told me to learn everything I could as fast as possible.  That fit me very well in that I told the recruiter in the hiring process that I wanted to crawl around dirt piles for the first five years of my career so I could learn how everything fit together.  I really wanted to understand how all the pieces went together.  I thought that would be important to me to be able to pass the Professional Engineers license exam.

I was also willing to move a lot to take advantage of promotion opportunities.  Some of my friends in the DOT decided they wanted to live in the same city for their whole career and stability was more important to them than promotions.  I’ve lived in six different cities and worked in eight different district offices.  I always look for an opportunity to advance, to do something different, to broaden my horizon.

For the first decade on the job I spent a lot of time in construction and developed a very deep knowledge of how things were built.  A mentor of mine at that point in my career advised that I needed to broaden my experience to really be successful in the upper levels of the organization.  I took that advice to heart and looked for those types of opportunities, including looking for state-wide assignments to better understand the whole DOT system.

Lastly, there was luck/serendipity involved in moving up in the DOT.  I was lucky there were opportunities ahead of me because of the hiring freeze.  I also remember one promotion that I didn’t get that really disappointed me.  That turned out to be a blessing in that I was able to land a promotion in another part of the state four months later that was a much better opportunity to broaden my experience.  I don’t think I would be the Director had I gotten the first promotion.

If we could dial back the clock, what advice would you give your 29-year-old self?

Director Steudle: What’s interesting is I have a 25 year old daughter who’s an engineer. My advice to my 29-year-old self (and my daughter) would be similar to my mentors –  take advantage of all of the opportunities you can by working hard and saying yes. First, understand your technical track really well. That will give you confidence as an engineer. Then look outside of your area of expertise to understand what the other issues in the organization are.

If I was looking at myself in a public agency I would say look outside the agency and ask what’s happening in society.  Just be mindful of the current trends and understand that you work for the people.

I think the biggest thing we can do is understand the context of where we work and what our real role is. The State Highway Commission wasn’t created 110 years ago to be an employment agency. It (now the Michigan DOT) was created to serve society by improving mobility.

Autonomous vehicles, mobility as a service, shared vehicle schemes, and electric vehicles have the potential to halve the number of vehicles in Michigan as well as the amount of gasoline sold – the major streams of revenue for the DOT.  Given the exponential rate of technology adoption, the DOT could be facing a 50% reduction in revenue streams within a decade.  What is Michigan doing right now to prepare for a future in which its current revenue streams would be cut in half?

Director Steudle: There’s lots of conversation about that, right? And it’s not just a state-by-state basis, it’s a national discussion. As part of the National CAFE Standards, part of our comments were related to the trust fund. The standards were great for the environment and we had no issues with the concept, but we wanted to be clear that they would likely be cutting the trust fund in half because we wouldn’t be collecting the same gas tax revenues.

It looks like the fleet will be moving towards being electrified vs. combustion engines.   Here in Michigan we raised the registration fee for electric vehicles about $50 to $75 more than gas vehicles to try to offset the gas tax loss.  But, we need to understand these types of things always have tradeoffs.  If you charge more on registration fees, then you’re just charging the people that live in your state. If you charge more for electricity, then it’s a disincentive to the electric vehicle. If you use mileage-based user fees, it’s a potential invasion of privacy.

We just released the 21st Century Infrastructure Commission Report to address our infrastructure needs over the next 50 years.  The last section discusses the tradeoffs between each funding scheme.  We wanted to make sure the legislature fully understood all the options because they ultimately choose how we’re going pay to keep the snowplows on the road.

It will be interesting to see what the future holds.  Some forecasts are predicting Vehicle Miles Traveled could quadruple with autonomous vehicles constantly circling instead of parking.  If a person lives twenty miles from their job in the central city, it may be cheaper to pay the couple of dollars in extra electricity to send the car back and forth to home without them versus paying the $20 downtown parking fee.

Also, if we see the safety gains predicted from autonomous vehicles, we may also end up with much smaller, lighter, cheaper vehicles.  Instead of buying a $40,000 car now, maybe a person buys three $10,000 cars to suit different needs.

Based on what you know right now, what do you think the key takeaways will be of the Future Interstate Study Committee’s final report?

Director Steudle: I think the initial charge was too limited. It basically said, “How much would it cost to rebuild the interstate to a future state?” The committee tweaked that and asked “what do we really need from the interstate for society, and then how does technology change that?” Right now we’re planning to bring the committee to Michigan, specifically Detroit, in May. Part of it will be a pretty deep-dive discussion into the technology side and what the future could look like.  We need to start thinking about what the future interstate system really needs to be instead of just rebuilding the 1970 version.

If you could set up a billboard with a message related to transportation, where would you put it and what would it say?

Director Steudle: What it would say is easier than where I would put it. What it would say is, “You’re spending your transportation inheritance. What are you leaving for your kids?” I guess I’d put it outside every state capitol and legislature because that’s where the change needs to come from.  But really, we need to get the message out to the general public so they understand what’s happening with our infrastructure.

In Michigan, everyone should understand that our revenue peaked in 2004.  That’s real dollars, not inflation adjusted.  Even though Vehicle Miles Traveled are up from then, fuel efficiency has outpaced the mileage.  I can’t give the same level of service to the public with 30% less money.

Any closing thoughts you’d like to share with my readers?

Director Steudle: I just left Ford where we were talking automated vehicles. Tomorrow (December 9th) we’re signing the Michigan autonomous vehicle legislation that allows for automated vehicles on any road, at any time, with no special license plate and no special driver’s license.  This is a huge example of us engineer’s needing to take a broader view of what’s happening in society.  Our transportation system is evolving rapidly and we need to stay current on how we’re going to serve society.

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