By Caitlin Switzer

WEST CENTRAL REGION–When the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) unveiled  its first-ever, state-owned and operated bus system connecting major populations, employment centers and local transit entities along the I-25 front range and I-70 mountain corridors last week, officials also told the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel that ultimately, the service will reach Grand Junction.

According to a news release issued prior to the launch of the new “Bustang” service, the bus system  will help further CDOT’s multi-modal mission and fulfill a key responsibility outlined in Colorado’s 2009 FASTER legislation, which established CDOT’s Division of Transit and Rail.

However, the launch of Bustang also reflected an awareness of the needs of the state beyond the heavily populated Front Range, something that has been a hallmark of the leadership the statewide transportation entity has shown over the past four years.

So when Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper appointed Shailen Bhatt Director of CDOT Jan. 5 to replace outgoing Director Don Hunt, it raised concerns on this side of the divide. Though it was clear that Bhatt is well qualified for the top job–having served most recently served as Cabinet Secretary for the Delaware Department of Transportation (DelDOT) where he directed nearly a billion dollar budget and managed 2,800 employees and the state’s transportation system–unlike his immediate predecessor Hunt, Bhatt has not spent his career in Colorado, getting to know and understand the issues that face not only the Front Range, but the rural Western Slope.

Will the transition in leadership impact the momentum that CDOT has achieved on the Western Slope over four years that Hunt was at the helm?

According to Nancy Shanks, Durango-based communications pro for CDOT’s Region Five, “All signs indicate continued momentum.”

Because while leadership is changing at the top, regional transportation directors Kerry Neet (Region Five) and Dave Eller (Region Three) will remain the same, Shanks said. Transportation commissioners Doug Aden of Grand Junction (Dist. 7) and Sidny Zink of Durango (Dist. 8) will also continue in their roles, she noted.

“Both of our regional transportation directors have been with CDOT for more than a decade, and have not just jobs but strong roots in our communities,” Shanks said. “Our commissioners are very committed as well, as are our regional transportation planners.” Here in West Central Colorado, regional transportation planning is overseen by Vince Rogalski of Gunnison, who heads Region 10’s Gunnison Valley Transportation Planning Region (GVTPR).

“Vince is from our neck of the woods,” Shanks said, adding that as a longtime CDOT staffer, she understands why the Front Range commands such a large share of the pie–but also the importance of Western Colorado’s rural roadways.

“The Front Range has more highways, more lane miles, and many, many more drivers,” she said. “There are a lot of bridges over there that need attending to. So proportionately they get more, because there is simply a greater need.

“However, recent events have put us back on the map,” she continued. “Particularly the closure of Red Mountain Pass, and damage to the state highway bridge in Bedrock–because when something occurs on one of our highways here, often it leaves no viable route.

“CDOT fully appreciated when the Bedrock Bridge closed, and kids from Paradox had to go to school in Nucla and vice versa,” she said, “same thing with the Pastor in Ouray who was trying to get to Silverton when Red Mountain was closed–he had to take a 100-mile detour.

“It’s not just tourists who can’t get through when these things happen,” Shanks said, “but also people doing their daily work, getting to doctors’ appointments and getting the kids to school–their lives are highly impacted, far more than someone’s on the Front Range would be.”

CDOT may be a statewide, governmental agency, but in recent years they have shown the flexibility and innovative approach that more often characterizes a well-run private company. Just ask Ouray–where CDOT played a leading role in re-opening Red Mountain Pass after a rockfall closed the Million Dollar Highway last January.

“CDOT had a very immediate response to the rockfall,” said Heidi Pankow of the Ouray Chamber and Resort Association (OCRA). “They met with the City, the County and local businesses, and went right to work on mitigation and getting the roads cleared as quickly as possible. What was interesting was they accepted help from local business and from the staff at Silverton Mountain, so they finished the mitigation very quickly.

“While the road was closed, they were extremely responsive–they even adjusted the road closure signage at the Hwy 550 turnoff from Ridgway to Telluride so that people would know it was OK to drive on to Ouray from there,” Pankow said. “And their communications were fantastic–we got regular updates, and information was shared widely on social media. Their PIO’s were really great–they communicated with local authorities and with local business, let us know the progress, and they even listened to the community.

“They really helped us make the best of the situation.”

In addition to an unprecedented level of responsiveness during crises, the four years that Hunt served as CDOT director were marked by major accomplishments, according to a CDOT news release issued Jan. 5. These included spearheading the first improvements to the I70 corridor in 30 years, and launching the Responsible Acceleration of Maintenance and Partnerships (RAMP) program which makes use of more effective cash management to increase construction and improvements to Colorado’s roadways by $300 million a year for the next five years. This year, Ridgway will use RAMP funding to construct improvements to Hwy 62 through town and to the Downtown core.

“The RAMP program may not last forever,” Shanks said, “but we will continue it as long as there are funds. And there will always be an emphasis on innovative funding.”

Hunt will remain at CDOT through the end of February to transition with Bhatt and then will return to his project development and advisory firm, The Antero Company. He will also join the Buechner Institute for Governance, School of Public Affairs, CU-Denver as a Senior Fellow and lecturer in transportation and infrastructure.

“Don Hunt has been a remarkable executive director for the Colorado Department of Transportation,” Governor Hickenlooper said.

“Leading CDOT for the last four years has been the highlight of my career,” Hunt said. “Transportation is the backbone that helps to drive our state’s economy and the quality of life for Coloradans.  Our success over the last four years is a result of the vision set out by Gov. Hickenlooper as well as the incredible dedication of CDOT’s employees and our local community partners to the people of Colorado.”

Hickenlooper, who called Bhatt “a consensus builder,” noted that the incoming Director’s experience in disaster recovery, transportation planning and innovative project delivery will help build on Hunt’s successes. Region 8 Transportation Commissioner Sidny Zink echoed that confidence.

“Over the past several months approaching Don Hunt’s departure, the Commissioners have had the opportunity to offer our thoughts on what qualities we think are most important in that role,” Znk said. “Knowing that Don was a key part of the search process gives me confidence that Mr. Bhatt is an excellent choice.”

According to the Jan. 5 release, CDOT maintains, repairs and plows more than 23,000 lane miles of highway and 3,437 bridges while keeping over 35 mountain passes open year-round.  This system handles more than 28 billion vehicle miles of travel annually. CDOT manages an annual budget of $1.2 billion and has 3,000 employees who focus on multi-modal programs including aeronautics, transit and rail, project construction, environmental, planning and safety.