The road to the top
Bill Cass, a career-long NHDOT employee, is the state’s new transportation commissioner
NHDOT Commissioner Bill Cass, left, with Greg Tedeschi, the district construction engineer at the F.E. Everett Turnpike expansion project in Bedford. (Photo by Allegra Boverman)
“Just remember,” Gov. Chris Sununu told Bill Cass after the Executive Council confirmed his appointment as transportation commissioner, “you asked for it.”
Cass actually seemed destined for the job. In 1986, he left the University of New Hampshire with a civil engineering degree in hand and went straight to work for the Department of Transportation, where he has spent his entire working life.
Cass joined the team designing the expansion of Interstate 93. With the construction of 80 lane miles of highway, construction or rehabilitation of 45 bridges and restructuring or improvement of five interchanges, the $800 million project was the largest ever undertaken by the department.
“I worked on the project right from the get-go,” said Cass. From start to finish he was engaged throughout the development, management and construction of the project, assuming ever greater responsibilities during the 35 years it took to complete. “It was a lot of blood, sweat and tears,” he remarked, “but very satisfying. A career highlight.”
Meanwhile, Cass found the time and energy to climb all 48 of the state’s 4,000 footers. Not once, but twice, including once in the winter. “it’s a great way to see New Hampshire,” he said.
In December, Cass — who, according to Gary Abbott, executive vice president of Associated General Contractors of New Hampshire, is highly respected by NHDOT employees as well as by municipal officials and private contractors — became the first commissioner to rise to the agency’s top position through the ranks in over a decade.
With the department working to a tight budget with a diminished workforce amid an inflationary economy Cass has his work cut out for him.
The department has proposed a $752.7 million budget for FY 2024 — $338.7 million for operations and $414 million for municipal aid and construction projects — which is 3 percent lower than budgeted in FY 2023. The $773.8 million budget proposed for FY 2025 is 0.3 percent less than budgeted in FY 2023, but 2.8 percent more than budgeted in FY 2024.
In measured terms, Cass acknowledged the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, or IIJA, is “a big deal.” The legislation provides $1.1 billion over the next five years in federal funding for highway design and construction and $225 million for bridge replacement and rehabilitation along with the opportunity to compete for other funds. Cass especially welcomed the increased funding for bridge work, which will pick up the pace of paring the list of red list bridges.
At the same time, the IIJA allotted New Hampshire $17.3 million over the next five years to develop and deploy an electric vehicle charging network. The plan, prepared by the Department of Transportation and Department of Environmental Services with state, regional and local stakeholders, was submitted in August 2022 and remains open to comment. It designates corridors — the interstate highways, turnpikes and major thoroughfares — where charging stations would be placed at intervals of 50 miles and within a mile of the highway.
But, Cass pointed out, inflation has tempered the impact of federal funding as well as prompted the department to request additional funds to fund significant cost increases.
For example, he cited the 154 percent rise in the cost of diesel and 54 percent jump in the price of road salt.
In December, the Association of General Contractors issued a “Construction Inflation Alert,” which reported that the year-over-year run-up in material costs, measured by the producer price index for non-residential construction inputs, which began with the pandemic in 2020, peaked at 24 percent in 2021 and stood at 11 percent in October 2022. As the pace of construction picked up in 2021, increases in bid prices caught up with input cost increases by last summer.
Cass said that investment in the fleet has been a priority for the department, and the FY 2022-2023 budget included funding to replace equipment and vehicles. But, as disruption of the supply chain has delayed deliveries, inflation has risen apace. Purchase prices of equipment and parts have risen by as much as 36 percent, hindering the effort and raising the cost of keeping older equipment in service.
With a historically high number of job vacancies, the department is short-handed as well.
“I don’t want to complain too much,” Cass remarked, acknowledging the workforce shortage that weighs on employers throughout the economy. Recently he told the House Transportation Committee that, since 2002, the number of positions in the department has shrunk by over 12 percent, from about 1,875 to 1,650, while both traffic volumes and highway mileage have increased.
Cass told the committee that, since March 2020, the job vacancy rate at the department has more than doubled, jumping from 10 percent to 22 percent, primarily due to increasing retirements and uncompetitive compensation. To limit the deferral of critical tasks, employees have been shuffled between positions within the department.
Faced with a shortfall of 184 employees in bureaus performing winter maintenance, 85 qualified volunteers were drawn from within the department and other state agencies supported by $5,000 authorized by the Legislature. Those measures, Cass told the committee “have stemmed the tide.” And, he noted, “so far the weather has helped” — a remark he said drew a sharp response from the district engineer in the North Country who told him his crews had been called out 20 of the past 23 nights.
Altogether, the department has identified additional needs of $20.7 million in FY 2024 and $28.7 million in FY 2025 to address the most pressing challenges.
Apart from these immediate challenges, Cass stressed the importance restoring sufficient levels of funding for preventative maintenance — from paving roadways to sealing bridges and from mowing verges to clearing drainages — which by extending the useful life of assets spares the cost of expensive repairs.
Cass reminded the Transportation Committee of the longstanding erosion of the highway fund, the primary source of funding for the department’s operating budget. The state gas tax represents the largest share of highway fund revenue, which also include registration fees and traffic fines.
As fuel efficiency has improved, tax receipts have dwindled. A study by Cambridge Systematics found that, adjusted for inflation, revenue fell 21 percent between 2010 and 2020, and assuming the same rate of inflation, it will fall between 32 and 47 percent between 2020 and 2030.
“This is not a new issue,” Cass told the House Transportation Committee, explaining that “over the years the Highway Fund has depended on a whole series of one-time fixes.” Last year the Legislature drew $50 million from the General Fund to balance the Highway Fund.
As commissioner, Cass said, his focus will be on the internal workings of the department, with measures “to rebuild and maintain what has earned our credibility to deliver quality projects and provide quality services in a timely fashion.”
“We are an efficient organization,” Cass assured the committee, “and we will continue to do more with less.”
The NHDOT’s task list:
• Manages 4,606 centerline miles of roadway
• Plans to pave 550 miles of centerline roadway each year
• Stripes 68 million feet of roadway
• Maintains 100,000 highway signs, 440 traffic signals and 550 traffic beacons
• Maintains 2,159 state bridges
• Contributes to maintenance and repair of 1,698 municipal bridges
• Inspects all bridges every two years and red list bridges more often
• Oversees 194 miles of active state-owned railways
• Oversees 25 airports accessible to the public
• Oversees 11 local public transit systems