Conversation with MDOT Director Paul Ajegba
Talking Michigan Transportation – Aug. 28, 2019
Conversation with MDOT Director Paul Ajegba
Jeff Cranson: Hi, welcome to the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast. This is our maiden voyage. I'm Jeff Cranson, communications director at MDOT, and we're going to do this on a regular basis, it's going to be part of an ongoing conversation with experts in transportation from inside the Department of Transportation at Michigan, but also other agencies around the state - really anybody that does anything and everything related to mobility. So, it seems appropriate for our first episode to kick it off with our director Paul Ajegba. Director, thanks for being here.
Paul Ajegba: Thank you, Jeff, thanks for having me.
Jeff Cranson: I just wanted to talk a little bit first to introduce you to people. There's been some stories - you did a number of interviews at the beginning of the year, but you're still not even one year into this position, so talk a little bit about your background and how you got to transportation and how you got to MDOT.
Paul Ajegba: Well, I've been at MDOT now for 29 years. I started in what we call the Engineering Development Program. This is a program where we bring in new employees and run them through a series of work areas. It's about an 18 to 24-month program, and after you're done it's a mutual agreement between you and your supervisor where you end up. So, when I came in 29 years ago, I found our program to be so helpful for me to transition into working in MDOT. We still have that program till today, and I think it's one of the best programs out there.
Jeff Cranson: So that really kind of fed your ongoing passion for developing youth, and getting youth into transportation and engineering, and it's all part of a larger workforce development belief on your part.
Paul Ajegba: Absolutely, I think the longer we are in the business we have to make it one of our major responsibilities to mentor and train the next generation, and if we don't do that - there's so much competition out there that we're going to lose a lot of talent to other industry and other organizations, so my passion for workforce has been - I mean, from coming in as a permanent employee at MDOT I always felt you have got to lift as you climb, and that's a big part of what I try to focus on.
Jeff Cranson: So, going back to your early days, and how you got to the department, and then the things that really fed your interests – operations, trying to help people get a safer commute, get from point A to point B as quickly, but as safely as possible - that's really been your interest, both as a Region Engineer heading up MDOT’s busiest region in Metro Detroit area, but also in the University area, based in Jackson, but including Lansing and Ann Arbor. Talk about some of the things that you did that you think really helped those operations.
Paul Ajegba: Yeah, well, I think for me it was one of those things where after I got out of the EDP program I worked in the Traffic and Safety area for several years, and I felt a little limited. I just, I felt moving around the department, learning other areas was a good way to challenge myself. So I worked in the Operations area, I worked in Utilities and Permits, I also actually worked in construction just to, kind of, get an overall feel for how everything comes together in the department, and I think that really helped my growth and also gave me the upward mobility opportunity - going to work as the Oakland TSC manager, prior to that I was Operations Engineer in in the University region, and I really, really enjoyed the operations side of things. That's where I found my niche.
Jeff Cranson: Could you explain what that means, because I think the average citizen thinks ‘I drive the car, I'm the operator,’ what do you mean by operations?
Paul Ajegba: Yeah, well, being an Operations Engineer at MDOT, or at all in the transportation field - it's more than just designing the road. It's also about the safety, the geometrics of the road, the vertical-horizontal curves, the guardrail, and then how, where, and how do you design these safety features into your roadway configuration. I think it's - if you've never worked in that area, you don't understand there's a science behind that. Quite frankly, how do you set a passing zone in a two-lane, two-way roadway? There's a science behind that.
Jeff Cranson: Determining the distance, the time…
Paul Ajegba: Exactly, the distance, the timing, looking at the vertical-horizontal curves, side distance, all that stuff plays in into it, so I really enjoyed that.
Jeff Cranson: So, when we talk about that, and eliminating congestion, and trying to make things safer for people, and environmentally friendly, because when you eliminate congestion you eliminate emissions, or reduce it greatly. Your crowning achievement thus far has to be the Flex Route on US-23 north of Ann Arbor.
Paul Ajegba: Yeah, that was, to me, I think a lot of things had to come together by a lot of very passionate people. I was so lucky to have a very passionate team, a very knowledgeable team, as well, I mean, University region. We all just collectively decided this is no longer acceptable - to have people in a backup for two hours just to get to work, and then getting out of work, two hours to get home - how can we make their lives a little more comfortable? And we all collectively decided ‘let's do something,’ and championing it is just my small part of it. I think the unsung heroes of the Flex Route are the ones who did all the work behind the scenes. I'm going to forget people if I start naming names, but the staff embraced the idea and said, ‘we’re going to be the first ones to do this, this is the right location, and let's go.’
Jeff Cranson: Well, and it's been recognized nationally because of its success, and now we're going to try to emulate that with some other applications. I think we're talking about going further north of where it ends now, and taking it on 23 all the way to 96, and another one in western Oakland County around Novi on 96 - you know, you see other applications, I mean really, is the sky the limit on where that could be used?
Paul Ajegba: Yeah, I think the first one's always the most difficult one. We have experts in-house now that have gone through this that are there to help in the other locations, and I think that technology - you have to find the right fit, and not just do it everywhere, so extending the 23 piece to 96 makes a lot of sense, because right now - and we knew that when we were doing this project - that M-36 was a chokepoint. Once you go north of M-36 in the p.m. it backs up. It operates like the way it used to operate. So, the idea of extending it all the way to 96 makes sense, and I've been working on that now. Then the other piece…
Jeff Cranson: Also, about funding, right?
Paul Ajegba: Exactly. The other piece from 96 all the way to 23, that's - the Metro region is working on that, and quite frankly, I think 131 in Grand Rapids would be a good candidate for that as well.
Jeff Cranson: Yeah.
Paul Ajegba: So, we see this as a tool in our toolbox that we could pull out and use where we think it will make a big difference, and it's a very cost-saving tool to be quite frank.
Jeff Cranson: So, as we record this on Wednesday August 28th the budget is a moving target, and we don't know where we're going to end up. The governor is still negotiating with legislative leaders. But one question we get a lot now, I heard it just yesterday at Saginaw Chamber Panel, and you hear it all the time, is depending on what new funding there is - I mean, everybody agrees that we need to put more money into roads. How we do it, and how much might be up for disagreement…
Paul Ajegba: Mm-hm.
Jeff Cranson: …but can MDOT and industry increase their capacity? Can they do more with what we've already got going on.
Paul Ajegba: Right, no, absolutely, and I will tell you why I am very optimistic that that's a challenge we can meet - I won't say easily, but we can meet the challenge. We have several major contractors right now in the state that operate in other states because we don't have enough work here for them, and they have got to stay in business - and I think I may have shared this example with you - I was up in Connecticut maybe about two years or so ago, and I saw one of our contractors’ trailer out there on I-95 in Connecticut - and I mean, major freeway - so I was really surprised, when I got home I asked him ‘I mean, I saw you guys doing some work out there.’ He said ‘Well yeah, we got to go east, we had to go where the work is. You don't have enough work for us here in Michigan,’ and there are several examples of that.
People like that will come back home, you know. They won’t need to go to the Connecticuts, New York, or wherever to find work if the work is in their backyard. So, they will build the capacity here in Michigan. And I also always use the example of the American Recovery Act in 2008 where the federal government pumped about a billion dollars into Michigan for us to do a lot of work with very strict guidelines, and we met that challenge, and we went back and looked at the numbers - we didn't see any run away cost-inflation-wise. So, again, I think, quite frankly, with the way the government has structured this funding it even helps us to ramp-up, because we do not get an infusion of all the money at once. You get 15 cents, and that gives you certain amount of money, another 15 cents, and another 15 cents – so, that gives MDOT, the industry, an opportunity to ramp-up to when we get the maximum amount.
Jeff Cranson: And those contractors, and those folks in the industry will say ‘just give us some certainty.’ If we know how much is coming and when, and we know it's going to be sustained for a period of time, then we can plan, and we can invest.
Paul Ajegba: We'll build up capacity if you guarantee us this is how much we're going to be getting every year. And I think that that's been the dilemma for them, because every year our program just fluctuates. In June, before the legislators go on break, if they have extra money in the general fund MDOT has another fifteen million dollars, or whatever. So, it kind of goes up and down, and it makes it tough to plan, but what they've been saying, MDOT as well, is ‘you let us know every year how much funding is going to be, and we will plan accordingly,’ and that's what the governor's plan does. It guarantees us a certain amount every year moving forward.
Jeff Cranson: And we have a five-year plan that's updated every year, so we can look at that and see what can be expedited, what can be moved up, and if there is an infusion of cash then there's more that we can do to move that program up.
Paul Ajegba: Exactly, yeah, we are doing that behind the scenes right now trying to figure all that out. What is it going to take to ramp up and make sure we meet the challenge?
Jeff Cranson: So, one other thing that you've you wrestled with - both as a head administrator for a region within the state, but now especially as the director for the whole department - is changing modes of transportation, and younger people, younger generations saying ‘you know what, I don't want to drive,’ - and the department was very supportive of establishing the RTA the Regional Transit Authority in Detroit - the high-speed rail, and our passenger rail, you know, what we've done with our partnership with Amtrak… You were asked about this recently at a meeting with Senator Peters’ staff, and you know, how do you balance that, when you know that we still have needs on the road system, but we have other people are saying ‘look, these modes are going to be more important to us going forward?’
Paul Ajegba: Well, I always answer the question by saying we can walk and chew gum at the same time. You'll hear some people say ‘well, why are you even spending time on CAVs, right? Concentrate your effort on just building good roads and bridges.’
Jeff Cranson: That's connected and automated vehicles.
Paul Ajegba: Yes, connected and automated vehicles for the novice out there. But the point is, if we don't keep up with these technologies out there, we are going to be left behind. You talked about the young generation, they want to work, live, and play where they are in the community. They don't want cars, they want to be, you know, if I want to go out of town, get on a train and go, come back, and I don't need a vehicle, I've got a bicycle to ride around. So, you hear the term ‘mobility as a service,’ ‘mobility on demand.’ This is where we’re headed. For us that's been in the department a longtime, when we got out of college we were trained to think differently - that when you have a Level of Service A in the corridor, that's great, that means you keep traffic moving, right? We built five lanes, through downtown there is seven lanes - you go down to Jefferson Avenue in Detroit, it's about almost a seven-lane roadway through the downtown area.
Jeff Cranson: That was really your only measure then.
Paul Ajegba: Exactly, our only measure at that time was keeping traffic moving. But the new mindset is, no, we don't want that anymore. We want that seven lanes down to three lanes, we want to slow traffic down, we want congestion in that downtown, we want people to park their cars, get out of the car, and walk. So, you have to create a walkable community to coincide, to coexist with cars with Q-line, with scooters, with bicycles. So, our challenge as engineers in this new generation is, how do we make all those modes all work together, and that's the challenge. You see several communities saying ‘no, we want that extra lane to dedicate it for bicycles. We don't need it for cars speeding into our community.’
Jeff Cranson: And if it's our road, and if it's an MDOT state route that goes through, you know, that happens to also be Main Street and the community comes and says ‘we want to take that from four lanes to three lanes, and have a turning lane and then have bike lanes on both sides,’ we will accommodate that.
Paul Ajegba: Oh yeah, we try to accommodate it as long as that's what the community wants, and I think, again, for us it's a huge paradigm shift, because, you know, we're not accustomed to that.
Jeff Cranson: Yeah, how do you do that with your top lieutenants and your people, your planners, and your engineers out in the field?
Paul Ajegba: Well, that's the challenge. I mean, you still have to try and make them understand we are here to serve the community. If that's what the community wants, let's partner with them to see how we can make these things happen. If us playing a small role in the building of that community, their downtown, and it becomes a vibrant place where people want to go and have fun, then we've done our own little part of making that happen, so I encourage that. But, for our engineers I think it’s a tough shift from saying ‘Level of Service A is what you want to design for,’ to saying ‘okay, Level of Service F is acceptable,’ so it is tough.
Jeff Cranson: Certainly your time and experience on the Ann Arbor Area Transit Authority helped inform your views and your perspective on this and how important it is, right?
Paul Ajegba: Oh, absolutely. I think, again, Ann Arbor, being such a progressive community, always fought this battle for a long time. Actually, we are ahead of the curve on this. You drive through downtown Ann Arbor on a given day, you know, it's two lanes through there. I mean, the three lanes they have a tunnel in there, but they kind of did a lot of bump-outs and things like that to try to make traffic - calming things to make it a little more walkable and multimodal friendly.
Jeff Cranson: So, the last thing I want to touch on in this one is, because we’re recording is just a few days before your first Bridge Walk, your first time as director and as a member of the Mackinac Bridge Authority, and the Mackinac Bridge Walk Labor Day tradition since the bridge was built more than 60 years age - this is the only the second year that we've had to reconfigure the walk, because Homeland Security said we cannot have vehicles on the bridge at the same time as walkers, because of some terrorist strikes around the world, and domestically. Makes sense from a safety standpoint…
Paul Ajegba: Right.
Jeff Cranson: …very disappointing to people the first couple years but we worked through it. This will be the second year, but this will be your first time participating in the walk with the governor. Are you looking forward to it?
Paul Ajegba: I'm really excited about that, I've talked to several people that did it last year with the new configuration. They thought it worked out very well, and I'm really excited. I think it's a great opportunity to be part of the Bridge Authority board, and also to be doing this with the governor on Labor Day where they will recognize those who worked hard to actually build that bridge, so it's exciting.
Jeff Cranson: How do you feel about getting up at 5:00 a.m.?
Paul Ajegba: Well, again, I do that now anyway just another day.
Jeff Cranson: Okay, well. thank you very much for taking the time to do this. and thank you for listening to the inaugural version of the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast. In future weeks we'll take on everything from innovative bridge building, to what the Regional Transit Authority is doing in southeast Michigan, and what we're doing with rail, and really any means of mobility.
Paul Ajegba: Well, thank you, Jeff, it was great to be with you.