State DOT chief doesn’t mince words on transportation needs

Charles O’Leary is a nuclear engineer with an MBA and administrative experience in both business and government. But to understand his predicament as head of the state’s Department of Transportation, you may want to brush up a bit on Greek mythology.

Take the state’s red-list bridges, for example, those in need of immediate repair or replacement. “In the last week and a half, I recommended the closure of three town bridges,” the commissioner said in a recent interview. He hopes to see more bridges taken off the red list than added to it, but lately, he said, it hasn’t worked out that way.

“Actually, the department in prior years had been making significant headway,” he said. “But with the significant increase in the cost of construction and the decrease in revenues, that red list is increasing. And therein lies the worry.”

Does he feel, then, like Sisyphus, the mythical figure who kept pushing the stone toward the top of the hill, only to have it continually roll back on him?

“Yeah, but at least he’s dead and has statues built to him.”

At other times, O’Leary may bring to mind Cassandra, the compulsive truth-teller, as when he recently discussed with a legislative committee the increased diversion of money from the state highway trust fund to other agencies, most notably the Department of Safety. The DOT chief was emphatic in pointing out that neither his department nor Safety created the projected $730 million deficit in highway funds over the next 10 years.

“You did,” O’Leary bluntly told the lawmakers, who control the budget-making process.

O’Leary also informed the committee that unless the revenue picture is improved, his department will be forced to lay off roughly 25 percent of its 2,300 employees. That will adversely affect the DOT’s ability to inspect and repair bridges and carry out the highway construction projects that are on the state’s 10-year highway plan, but are already expected to take 35 years to complete.

“I don’t sense there is any interest in us cutting back on snow plowing,” O’Leary said the next day, when asked how the projected deficits and layoffs will affect DOT operations. But he fears other important functions will be hamstrung.

“I would hope that attention to the red-list bridges would prevail,” he said, not long after the collapse of a bridge in Minneapolis brought national attention to transportation infrastructure problems.

But O’Leary did not sound optimistic. “There is no way we can get the job done with the projected revenue shortfall,” he said. The traveling public may not like the results. “I think inconvenience will become an issue,” he said. And safety? “Hopefully not.”

‘Don’t look back’

A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, O’Leary earned his MBA at the Amos Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College. He is a former executive of Chem-Fab in Merrimack and Northeast Concrete Products in Plainville, Mass.

Having served as commissioner from 1990 to 1996, O’Leary, 66, came out of retirement in March of this year at the invitation of Gov. John Lynch, who appointed him to fill out the remainder of retiring Commissioner Carol Murray’s term, ending in December of this year.

O’Leary has made it clear that he has no interest in serving beyond that time, so he is already in his last few months as transportation commissioner. Does that make it any easier to bring unwelcome news to the State House?

“No, it doesn’t make it any easier or more difficult,” he said. “I don’t find it hard to tell the truth. I think that’s what leaders are supposed to do.”

It was during his first tenure as transportation commissioner that O’Leary’s bluntness of speech raised some hackles in at least one corner of the State House, the office of then-Gov. Steve Merrill.

In 1994, O’Leary had to explain to the selectmen in Dalton why a bridge in that town had been closed. A Union Leader correspondent was there and captured the commissioner’s colorful description of the condition of many of New Hampshire’s bridges. His advice to motorists was: “Drive fast and don’t look back.” No night editor, reviewing the copy for the morning edition, could ask for a better headline.

A WMUR-TV news team the next day captured the usually radiant Merrill in high dudgeon. “I’m furious!” the governor fumed. “If I could fire him, I would!”

Today, O’Leary has no desire to dwell on the testy relationship that existed between him and the governor more than a dozen years ago. “Don’t make this about me and Steve Merrill,” he said.

But he remembers well the frustration he felt over the lack of resources needed to deal with deteriorating bridges.

“I didn’t feel people understood the gravity of the situation,” he said. “I felt like I was the only one waking up in the middle of the night and worrying about it.”

In the six months since he has been back, O’Leary has been seeking structural changes as a way of keeping the eye of state government better focused on the condition of its roads and bridges and the money needed to repair them. He has recommended, for example, that the current membership of the Governor’s Commission on Intermodal Transportation, consisting of all five members of the Executive Council, be expanded to a 12 member-body that would include the governor, Senate president and speaker of the House or their appointees, along with the chairs of the House and Senate committees dealing with public works and transportation.

He also would like the commission to meet quarterly, rather than once every two years, to review the state’s transportation improvement plan.

Suggested changes

O’Leary also has called for shrinking the state’s 10-year plan to a six-year program, with money firmly committed for the first four years of each cycle. He also has presented the Legislature with a plan for completing projects on the current 10-year plan in 22 years, rather than the anticipated 35.

With the governor’s approval, the commissioner persuaded the Legislature to create a new position at DOT, a deputy commissioner responsible for personnel, financial affairs and transportation planning. Up to this point, he said, everything coming to the commissioner from within the department is funneled though the office of assistant commissioner/chief engineer.

“There is no way one person can pull that off,” O’Leary said. “It’s too complex a job.”

There is no reason to expect that someone with engineering skills will also be highly skilled in accounting and finance, he added. “I don’t think any organization should have 2,300 people reporting to one person, who then reports to the commissioner.”

The commissioner sees the expanded advisory commission he recommends functioning as a board of directors for the Department of Transportation. But he’s also convinced that the looming deficit in the highway trust fund is something only the Legislature can resolve.

“The highway fund surplus is in freefall,” he said, noting that the $93 million surplus of just two years ago is expected to hit zero by June 2009. Under existing revenue projections and anticipated spending levels, the deficit will reach $730 million in 2018.

He said much of the concern about the increase in diversion of trust fund money into eight other agencies, including the departments of Safety, Justice and Health and Human Services, “is legitimate.”

Devoting a greater share of the funds to DOT would help, he said, but avoiding a substantial deficit will require “a reduction of expenses or an increase of revenues.”

Or the legislators might be tempted to just spend fast and not look back.

“Don’t craft words that way,” O’Leary advised. “It can get you into trouble.”