Dennis "Chip" Sterndahl was named ATSSA’s president in February, succeeding Keith Griggs of Safety Lights Co., Texas. Sterndahl is president of Sterndahl Enterprises Inc., a Calif.-based highway and airport striping company that also installs and rents roadway safety signs, changeable message boards, cones and trench safety products. ATSSA’s current president-elect is Kathleen Holst, president of Alternative Construction Controls Inc., Romeoville, Ill. In an interview with ROADS & BRIDGES, Sterndahl talks about the association’s ongoing push forward.
R&B: What is your background and experience in the roadway safety industry?
Sterndahl: I’ve been involved with the roadway safety industry for 30 years. While still in high school, I started working for a parking meter distributor in Los Angeles that also was a striping business. Within a couple of years, I was running a crew and modifying some of their equipment with improvements and inventions that saved time, money and increased productivity levels.
In 1976, I became the general superintendent for that company, and two years later I started to build my own roadway safety equipment in my garage during my spare time. I developed a machine that dispensed two-part epoxy for pavement marker installations, and in 1979 formed Sterndahl Manufacturing literally in my garage. In 1982, we incorporated as Sterndahl Enterprises.
R&B: ATSSA has undergone many changes within the last couple years. What do you see as the most significant changes?
Sterndahl: I think the most noticeable change in ATSSA has been a new image.
ATSSA has been around since 1969, and like any organization it began small with a few members and started trying new and different things over the years. Your question hits the nail on the head, because I think the last two years have seen the most changes ever for our association. Keith Griggs, our last president, brought many new ideas and a new spirit to the association.
Keith had vision and believed we should look ahead, rather than where we’ve been. ATSSA clearly has a good story to tell, and our recently adopted tagline for the association, "Safer Roads Save Lives," says it all. Those four words capture what our member’s are tying to accomplish when they go to work every day.
If you listen to talk radio or read a newspaper on a daily basis, what we’re doing is frequently the topic of discussion, or is in some cases under attack. Most motorists view roadwork as an inconvenience or a time waster during their commute. ATSSA members view roadwork as progress . . . work required to make our roadways safer for the motoring public. These efforts also save fuel in the long run, and help clean our environment through improved traffic flow in and around cities and metropolitan areas.
As you know, most of our roads were built over 40 years ago, and many of them lack modern-day safety features and products that save lives. ATSSA members are installing their life-saving products, such as brighter signs, stripes, upgraded guardrails and lighting, every day as our roads get better and safer.
Motorists wouldn’t trust an unrestored 40-year-old automobile when venturing out on a cross-country trip.
Why then should they trust roadways in similar shape?
Roads that lack modern day safety features, that’s where ATSSA members come into play, and getting that message to the media has been a recent undertaking. I think we’ve been very successful in doing this. When this message appears in print, or runs on the 6 o’clock news somewhere, the public begins to understand the importance and the necessity of our member’s products and what they are doing. No one will ever know for sure how many lives a new guardrail or a brighter sign will save over the years, but our members understand and feel confident that what they are doing is helping reduce the number of unnecessary deaths and injuries.
The new ATSSA is not afraid to try new things, take a few risks or make an investment in technology and research. For example, one of our most recent efforts is e-commerce (Roadcommerce.com).
At our new website, people will be able to browse for traffic control devices and other items offered by our members. It’s a one-stop shop for safety with great potential to take us to the next level of public service.
Also, the old ATSSA had the mindset that because of our numbers we would never be effective in the legislative and regularity process. The new ATSSA firmly believes in the importance of advocacy at local, state and federal levels.
For example, a couple of months back our member’s presence on Capitol Hill helped prevent a reduction in roadway construction funds (TEA-21) for all states by voicing their opinion when a proposed cut in the gas tax was presented to our elected officials.
I intend to help keep this momentum moving in a forward direction and I need the help of all ATSSA members to make this happen. Roadway safety and improvement projects are here to stay for a long time, and ATSSA members are a major component of this lifesaving effort for the long haul.
R&B: What do you hope to accomplish within ATSSA over the next couple years?
Sterndahl: My goal as ATSSA’s president is simple . . . to stay on the same course we are on now and constantly improve on what we’re doing with a focus on advocacy at all levels.
Our Government Relations program continues to undergo a tremendous overhaul. Our political action task force recently revamped our advocacy tool kit to include funding mechanisms that address relevant issues critical to our industry and our members. We have revitalized our PAC so that we may support congressional candidates that believe in what we’re doing. We also have so many active committees with tremendous member participation that do so many good things for the industry year round. Their ideas and recommendations are recognized by Federal Highway Adiministration (FHWA) and other organizations that share the same vision . . . to help save lives and reduce the number of injuries in work zones and roadways.
One of the most significant accomplishments we recently undertook was a partnership with FHWA and the American Association of State Highway & Transportation Officials (AASHTO) this past April was called "National Work-Zone Safety Awareness Week."
This will be an ongoing annual event that helps raise public awareness of this issue nationwide. Over 30 partners in the D.C. area alone took part in the kick-off ceremony in Northern Virginia on April 3. Hundreds gathered to listen, as families of workers killed and injured told their personal stories of senseless accidents . . . and even worse, fatalities in work zones which could have been prevented.
Likewise, 30 states across the country did something that week in their local areas to encourage motorists to slow down, stop using cellular phones or take other basic steps when they see the orange signs of a work zone during their travels. Many people I speak with are excited that something is finally being done to recognize this issue.
Plans are already underway for next year’s event, scheduled for April 9-13. I encourage everyone in our industry, ATSSA member or not, to step up to the plate and take part somehow in raising the awareness of this lifesaving effort.
R&B: There are over 1,600 ATSSA members, and that number continues to grow. Why are so many roadway safety companies considering membership in ATSSA?
Sterndahl: Where else can a roadway safety professional have an opportunity to participate in so much and make such a difference than in ATSSA?
The networking opportunities alone at our Expo, and at our Midyear Meeting, allow ATSSA members a unique opportunity to share and exchange ideas with their colleagues.
Our annual Expo, by the way, is the industry’s largest. Attendance and participation records were shattered this year in Phoenix. Thousands of men and women gathered there to exchange ideas, network with others and display their products. Next year’s Expo in Ft. Lauderdale promises to be even bigger and better.
Our members are committed to what they are doing and are contributing in some way every day in the interest of roadway safety. By joining with others who have similar interests and goals, our members have a sense of belonging to a great organization that’s going places. If someone has an idea, all of us will listen.
Through our collective ideas, we can address issues, make changes and continue to improve the way we do things that benefit our members and the motoring public. We’re having fun, and we’re making a difference at the same time. I would say if you are not an ATSSA member, you should strongly consider joining our ranks.
R&B: How are ATSSA chapters making a difference within their communities with both the motoring public and their elected officials?
Sterndahl: ATSSA has 18 chapters across the country, and that number will continue to grow. North and South Carolina will soon join together to form the ATSSA Carolina’s chapter, and we’re all excited about this happening.
ATSSA chapter meetings throughout the year, in addition to the Expo and the Midyear Meeting, are yet another venue for industry professionals to meet, network and discuss ideas that help the motoring public in some way.
These meetings also afford ATSSA members an opportunity to receive training and assistance in dealing with their local communities, law enforcement agencies and elected officials. The chapter network has become the backbone of our advocacy efforts at the state and local levels, and is a tremendous training ground for members of our association.
Media training, for example, is planned during ATSSA chapter visits over the next 12 months. This training will enable our members to react to the media should that opportunity ever present itself. With so much emphasis on roadway construction and maintenance projects across the country, we’re finding contact with the media is inevitable at some point. Our members have to be prepared to go on camera or speak with reporters about what they are doing.
The public wants to know why they are being delayed, or how a particular project is going to improve their community. Our members can help answer these questions.
R&B: With so much emphasis on TEA-21, what can the roadway safety industry look forward to in the next few years?
Sterndahl: All of us in this business should not feel comfortable resting on our laurels. TEA-21 is a great piece of legislation, but we have to be careful, as it seems this law is constantly under attack by a special interest group or by an elected official somewhere. ATSSA must continue to participate, both directly and as partners, in coalitions and with elected officials that support positive funding for roadway safety improvements.
We have a lot of work to look forward to, that’s for sure, and we’re prepared to meet the challenges head-on. Motorists can expect a work zone just about every 50 miles they travel, even more so in and around cities. As people travel, they’re going to come in contact with our members and their products at one point or another. Old guardrails that used to hurt or kill people are being replaced with new ones, designed to redirect vehicles to a safer stop. Bright new signs are being installed to make driving easier and safer for all drivers . . . from the young to the elderly. Brighter, more reflective stripes also are being installed to keep motorist’s on course even at night when it’s raining or when the road is poorly lit.
The next several years are golden opportunities for ATSSA members to explain their roles in their communities. We must make the public aware that they too can take simple steps when they drive to reduce the number of deaths and injuries on our nation’s roadways. ATSSA also will continue to lead the way to train and educate work zone flaggers, technicians, supervisors, inspectors and anyone else interested in making our roadways safer.
I am excited about the future, and I am excited about standing alongside ATSSA members to make a difference in how safe we travel every day.