Search for VDOT chief narrowed to three

News The Hampton Roads and Virginian-Pilot August 29, 2006
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Three candidates have been selected as finalists in the search for a new head of the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), as the agency has been without a permanent commissioner since Philip Shucet stepped down nearly 14 months ago, the Hampton Roads and Virginian-Pilot newspapers reported.

An administration official and a lawmaker--who both asked not to be identified because Virginia Gov. Timothy Kaine has not yet made his decision--confirmed that the three finalists for the position are:

• David Ekern, who recently retired as director of the Idaho Transportation Department to pursue "potentially significant career opportunities," according to the Associated Press. Ekern is credited with helping to modernize the department but has been criticized for poor communication and moral at the agency, the newspapers reported.

• Barbara Reese, VDOT's chief financial officer who oversees the agency's budget, bonding, procurement and toll operations. She also has worked closely on efforts to increase the use of public-private partnerships in Virginia.

• Gregory Whirley, acting commissioner of VDOT since July 2005. Whirley previously served as VDOT's inspector general, coordinating the agency's audits and investigating complaints of waste, fraud and abuse.

Gov. Kaine is not expected to announce his choice for commissioner of VDOT until after Labor Day, according to the Hampton Roads and Virginian-Pilot.

Shucet said he hopes a decision is forthcoming. "They do need to do something quickly," he said. "I think that's important for VDOT and important for all the taxpayers."

When told the names of the candidates, Shucet said all three have strong credentials.

"Greg Whirley is a man of great integrity," Shucet said. "He understands the details of running a business. He could have just sat back while he was acting commissioner, but he has worked hard to improve planning."

Shucet said Reese "was glued to my side" when the two first arrived at the agency in 2002 and discovered that the agency's road-building plans far exceeded its projected revenues. "We had to put the department's finances back on track, and she did that, not me," he said.

Shucet said Ekern is widely known for innovative uses of technology to improve transportation systems in Minnesota and Idaho. Ekern also leads a national panel on homeland security for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

Ekern is the only engineer among the three candidates, but his recent experience is with a smaller state. Idaho's transportation agency has 1,834 employees and an annual budget of $500 million, while VDOT has 9,300 employees and a budget of $3.8 billion. Prior to taking the Idaho job in 2003, Ekern spent 33 years in Minnesota's road department, most recently as assistant commissioner, the newspapers reported.

Former Virginia Commissioner Ray Pethtel said the new state commissioner faces a tough job.

"They are going to have a difficult and frustrating time," Pethtel said in an email. "VDOT is more influenced by philosophical and programmatic politics (executive and legislative) than ever before."

Shucet said the new commissioner should stay out of the ongoing legislative battle over whether to raise taxes for roads and transit. "That person's primary role is to be very serious about running VDOT regardless of whether there's more revenue for transportation," he said, "and not get embroiled in that debate."

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