Q&A with: Transportation Commissioner George Campbell

The first non-engineer to be New Hampshire’s commissioner of transportation, George N. Campbell Jr. nonetheless brought a wealth of experience with him when he joined the agency in May.

He was Maine’s Commissioner of Transportation from 1980 to 1984 and commissioner of economic development before that. He also was a city councilor and mayor of Portland, Maine. He’s been president of four companies, including Guilford Motor Express, and vice president of Guilford Rail in Cambridge, Mass. He also was a commercial real estate broker for a number of years. A resident of Portsmouth, he is active on community boards, including the executive committee of The Music Hall of Portsmouth.

Q. When did you first become aware of the opening for this job and what interested you in it?

A. Chris Spath in the attorney general’s office is a friend of mine. When I was commissioner in Maine, she was on the legislative staff. She was aware of the job I had done and asked if I had any interest. After 25 years, I didn’t think I did, but certainly as a New Hampshire resident, I knew the governor was working hard to find a good commissioner that would help him with all these transportation issues, and I said that I would go over and talk to him.

I understand politics and I understand business and I feel that of all the agencies, this is the people’s business, this is the people’s asset — transportation. It’s the one they use every day, the one they depend on for their economy. And I was impressed that the governor saw it that way, that he really took a non-partisan look at it, which really impressed me. Not all governors do that.

Q. To what extent is this a political job?

A. This job is really, to me, more of a business job. The political part of it is a respect for and understanding of how government works. Transportation is pretty much an invisible kind of service to people. It’s like the tires on a car — you only notice them when they’re flat.

I’m coming in at a time like I did in 1980 in Maine, in an energy crisis. Issues that people wouldn’t have talked about and the press wouldn’t have cared about before are on the front page of their concerns. The average New Hampshire resident 15 years ago was spending about 10 cents of every dollar on transportation. Fifteen years later, not counting all of the costs of the energy crisis, they’re spending 21 cents of every dollar they have on transportation. And they don’t have all the choices that they need. I find that to be an intriguing set of issues and challenges.

Q. What about the 10-year plan for highway improvements? Didn’t that become a 35-year plan?

A. Originally, that’s what former Commissioner Charles O’Leary dealt with. And now we have a realistic 10-year plan. The process that the Executive Council and the governor and the commissioner went through was very extensive. They cut out $2 billion worth of projects we won’t be getting to. The projects that are on there are funded, except for about $124 million that’s unaccounted for out of about $2.5 billion that we’re going to be working on.

In past plans, they just kept the money constant and didn’t factor in any kind of inflation. This plan puts 3 percent inflation in there. Some years it’ll be higher, some years it’ll be lower. It’s an extremely realistic plan. It’s doable.

The challenge right now is the federal highway reauthorization. It passed the House recently, overwhelmingly. If it doesn’t happen, we’re going to lose $52 million a year from the feds. Essentially, when we pay the federal excise taxes, our federal gasoline taxes, we send about $160 million to Washington. We get $160 million back with a lot of strings attached. And now they only want to send $112 million back

Q. With as many strings attached?

A. Oh, sure. Anyway, now it’s in the Senate’s hands and they’re in the summer recess and we’ll see if it gets passed.

Q. The 10-year plan is one area where politics comes in, isn’t it? The executive councilors and their constituents want more projects than the Legislature is willing to raise money for, right?

A. Right — I mean, obviously. I think the department’s role in that whole process is really to keep bringing the facts on how we measure deficient bridges. I mean, the big effort of the 10-year plan is to enumerate and tackle the red-list bridges.

Q. But you have to make recommendations. And each councilor is convinced that his project is more urgent than the other councilors’. That must be the difficult part.

A. It is. But let’s step back a minute. The communities work with the regional planning commissions and with the department. And the department comes out with its program and the GACIT — the Governor And Council Intermodal Transportation committee — will do its work. I think because of all of the involvement of the communities and the regional commissions that it’s a much more credible, fact-based process than just political, pork-barrel trading.

Q. You said we don’t have all the transportation choices we need? What do we need?

A. Let me just use a microcosm. A lot of the workers in Portsmouth can’t afford to live there. So they might move 20 miles out north or westerly or even into Maine and commute in. Well, when the energy crisis came and it’s over $4 a gallon for gas, what choice did they have in shuttle services and other kinds of service that you have in an urban area? Even though our park-and-ride efforts are blossoming, we’ve only just begun to put it on the Internet. Up until this spring, we’ve been recording on handwritten cards our matches for ride-sharing.

Obviously we’ve got to look at where we go with passenger rail. But in New Hampshire to get to passenger rail in the north-south corridor, we’ve really got to look at getting more freight on the railroad, because you’ve got to have the freight to pay for the construction and support the rest of it.

Q. Is it really necessary for the state to subsidize and buy the buses for Boston Express, a private profit-making business?

A. That happened before my watch, but let me explain how that ties in.

One, we see a need to expand and improve I-93. Part of that is to mitigate congestion with other modes. It’s probably upwards of $200 million just to build the infrastructure for rail and it doesn’t fit the same area. So buses make a lot more sense. So the department is using its C-MAQ — Congestion Mitigation of Air Quality — monies, using those federal monies to build these park-and-rides. And we went out to bid — anybody could have bid on it. We’re building the facilities with federal funds and we’ll buy the equipment with these funds.

We’ll let Boston Express use the equipment and have the facilities for up to three years for nothing. But Boston Express will have to pay for the rest of it. And they have to guarantee us that they have the financial wherewithal and the capacity to meet the rest of it. So we’re looking at a decade of service. And we jump-start that through a bid process.

Q. Diplomacy has to be one of your skills, doesn’t it?

A. I hope so (laughing). Though there have been questions about that of all commissioners, how diplomatic they are.

But I think over the years of being a public official and a businessperson that you can listen to a lot of parties. I don’t think you should seek these kinds of positions or be willing to take these kinds of positions unless you can really listen to people. I think that’s where the tact comes in.

We have about 1,600 employees. I’ve already met about 900 of them in just three months. And just late last week I sent out a survey to all 1,600 people on what people think of the department and where the morale is — what they think, what ideas they have. Those are the people who know how to build a highway, fix a highway, design and build a bridge. My job is to get them the resources to do the job they’ve been trained to do and are capable of doing. That’s how I approach the job, to listen to these people and see what their needs are.