CDOT Executive Director Don Hunt resigns after one term
January 17, 2015
Don Hunt won't take offense if the average commuter hardly notices his handiwork. Invisibility is the point.
On a sunny, unseasonably warm afternoon in mid-January, Hunt had just wrapped up a 12-day stint at work and finally found time to relax with a cappuccino at Abbey's Coffee in Frisco. It's a favorite hangout for the outgoing director with the Colorado Department of Transportation, found just a few blocks from his home of nearly 15 years on Tenmile Creek.
"We were living in Denver and just tired of driving back and forth every weekend, like everyone else," Hunt says of his Frisco home, where he, his wife and two grown children have lived part-time since 1990. "We just love the area so much. We love winter, we love summer, so I'll be glad when I have a little more flexibility to actually get away when I want to."
Outside Abbey's, at the intersection of Main Street and Summit Boulevard, cars splash through sporadic piles of dirty, brownish snow. Hunt watches for a bit and sips his drink, then turns away from the road and glaring 3 p.m. sun to chat about Uber — yet another of his interests in the modern transportation world.
"I'm a great Uber supporter," Hunt says when I mention that the ride-sharing service is coming to Summit County for the first time. "They've had problems with driver safety and rider safety that need to be addressed, but this is an emerging trend. Even the president of Ford Motor Co. says they need to be involved (in ride sharing)."
For Hunt, it pays to know anything and everything about how people move, hence the Uber interest. Observing traffic is his career, at least for a few more weeks, and he's often captivated by the little things most everyday drivers overlook: toll lanes, plowing strategies, the reason the eastbound bore at the Eisenhower Tunnel is named Johnson (as in Edwin C. Johnson, the two-time Colorado governor who convinced the federal government to stretch Interstate 70 through the Rocky Mountains, then considered a fool's errand).
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After explaining the Johnson connection and the intricacies of maintaining 35 mountain passes throughout the year, Hunt pauses for a beat.
"I find this stuff fascinating," Hunt says with a shrug. "I'm not sure if anyone else thinks it's so, but I love looking at these transportation issues."
A DELICATE TOUCH
Hunt knows that overseeing 23,000 lane miles of roads, highways and interstates is a relatively thankless job. He knew so when Gov. John Hickenlooper appointed him to the executive director position in January 2011, nearly 30 years after the Minnesota native moved from Minneapolis to Denver for a management position with BRW. He stayed with the transportation and consulting firm for nearly 25 years before taking the CDOT position.
Hunt's early consulting work with BRW was spread across the county. There was the realignment of Lawrence and Larimer streets for the Auraria Campus in Denver, the 1992 Coors Field construction in the heart of LoDo, even a '90s redesign project at the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
Despite such high-profile projects, Hunt still believes he's at his best when people hardly notice the work he's done — even with an annual budget of $1.2 billion. In 2006, when Colorado set aside $550 million in capital funding, he oversaw 150 separate projects and a team of 40 managers across dozens of departments.
"I'm always looking at how we can fit something that provides more mobility for a growing population, but that still respects the fabric around that area," says Hunt, who's seen Colorado's population and infrastructure area grow exponentially over the past three decades. "But there's no one solution that works every time. It becomes a balancing act."
Again, invisibility is something of a metric for Hunt's role at CDOT, right alongside traffic and budgetary data. If drivers hardly feel the frustrating downsides of a construction project, then Hunt and his team of 3,300 statewide employees have done their job.
"The real reward in doing what I do, planning and design, is being involved in the creation, seeing a project completed so that it becomes part of the area it's in," Hunt says.
Yet along the I-70 corridor, that balancing act between form and function is tricky. Take the Twin Tunnels (now Veterans Memorial Tunnels) expansion outside of Idaho Springs: The $161 million project began in 2012, just a year after Hunt joined CDOT, and it fast became a headache for commuters, particularly ski traffic. The end is almost in sight — crews are putting the final touches on the westbound tunnel after completing the eastbound side in late 2014 — but delays occasionally stretched upwards of two or three hours during heavy traffic.
While Hunt was familiar with the project management, including public moaning and groaning, taking over at CDOT was a new challenge. Gov. Hickenlooper appreciated his input during the 2006 capital improvement projects — the two first met over beers at the governor's Wynkoop Brewery while Coors Field was going up — and knew Hunt could handle the deep, confusing budget system at CDOT.
"With a project, everyone is rolling the same direction. You can pick the team," Hunt says. "With an organization, there's a culture and a history and a way things are done. You just have to create a vision and communicate that, day in and day out."
Hunt's vision for CDOT was straightforward: improve business practices to become more efficient and more accountable. Shortly after joining, he started poring through decades of grants and capital funds to clean up CDOT's accounting system. What he found was shocking. Nearly $100 million in unused state and federal funds, usually a few million left here and a few million left there after projects were completed.
The rediscovered funds made the Twin Tunnels project possible, and when paired with a cash-based accounting system that will give CDOT $300 million per year over the next five years — "The final rabbit in the hat," Hunt chuckles — the department announced Responsible Acceleration of Maintenance and Partnerships, or RAMP, a three-year initiative that is Hunt's final legacy as executive director.
RAMP will address Colorado's ever-growing transportation issues, but Hunt says it's not a cure-all for CDOT. Take the Maglev: He says the potential high-speed train along I-70 is "entirely feasible" from a design perspective, but it would cost between $10 and $20 billion. Instead, he believes current projects like metering stations for the Eisenhower Tunnel and the "Peak Period Shoulder Lane" project on Interstate 70, between the Empire exit and Idaho Springs are better solutions.
As he finishes his cappuccino, Hunt leans back in his chair once more. After all, it's nearly the weekend and he's ready to unwind. Yet he knew his term with CDOT would last only four years — the end was always in sight. It was part of the original deal with Hickenlooper, long before the governor won a second term.
"Hickenlooper has said this before, 'We only have one government, so let's take care of it,'" Hunt says. "'I think I was able to bring a new direction to CDOT. I'm proud that I was able to do some public service in my life, and I hope people who have also worked in private sector will consider doing a stint in the public sector."
But Hunt's heart is still in transportation. After he leaves CDOT in February and is replaced by Shailen Bhatt, the former cabinet secretary for the Delaware Department of Transportation, Hunt will remain heavily involved with the Antero Co., his Denver-based consulting firm. It just won't be based in Denver anymore — the office will move to Frisco in about a year, as soon as he has time to breathe.
But not too much time.
"I love to work," Hunt says. "I want a little more flexibility with my life, but I absolutely love to work. It's what enjoy."