- The Washington Times - Monday, May 20, 2002

RICHMOND Exactly one month into his assignment to turn around Virginia's troubled transportation agency, Philip Shucet stood nervously before 17 new acquaintances last week to make one of the most important presentations of his career.
As he outlined a grim state road-building plan slashed by nearly one-third, members of the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) eyed Mr. Shucet closely, analyzed his words and stewed. They were unhappy at the loss of 179 road projects, and Mr. Shucet knew it.
"Scared? That would be an accurate term," Mr. Shucet, visibly relieved, said after the state's top transportation policy panel expressed frustration Thursday over $2.9 billion worth of cuts in Virginia's tentative six-year road-building master plan, but unanimously endorsed it.
"I was afraid that perhaps our credibility had been so badly damaged in the past that it would be difficult for the board in just 30 days to muster confidence in us," Mr. Shucet said.
Not to worry, said board member Ulysses X. White, a conservative, retired Army colonel from Manassas with no patience for partisan posturing or bureaucratic equivocation. He said Mr. Shucet's candor and attention to detail persuaded him to back the plan.
"He did outstandingly well," said Col. White. "He's a quick study, in my judgment. He let people know right off, 'I'm here to be candid with you.' He's a guy who does the right thing and does what he tells you he's going to do."
Mr. Shucet (pronounced Shoo-keht) is the person Gov. Mark R. Warner hired after a national search by an executive recruiting firm to rehabilitate a dispirited and discredited Virginia Department of Transportation riven by police probes, scathing audits and hardball politics.
Over the years, the agency had laid on more and more projects even though revenues were hundreds of millions of dollars short of actual costs. Mr. Warner, a Democrat, scolded the CTB, appointees of his Republican predecessor, days after he took office for rubber-stamping six-year plans so inflated they amounted to "false advertising."
Last year, the General Assembly's auditing arm blasted VDOT for keeping road maintenance funding level through 2007, underestimating repair costs by $670 million, even though one-fifth of the state's major highways needed upgrades worth $1.6 billion.
As of September, the agency had shelled out $46 million to a California-based contractor for a computerized records system that never worked and never went into service. A 1-year State Police investigation found no criminal wrongdoing.
Why then, at age 52 and for a substantial pay cut, did Mr. Shucet swap his lucrative job as executive vice president of the respected, Pennsylvania-based Michael Baker engineering firm for the steep challenge of untangling VDOT?
"Because when the search firm called me about this job, it was the call I'd wanted all my life and I wished they'd made it 10 years earlier," said Mr. Shucet, a graduate of Virginia Tech.
He took the advice his father had given him to "do what gives your heart the most substance." Three months later, he was in Richmond in a $130,000-a-year job analyzing where VDOT with its 10,350 employees and 60,000 miles of roads went wrong.
"We got in trouble because we did not have clear, consistently followed processes to manage long- or short-term budgets, long- or short-term debt," Mr. Shucet said in a recent, wide-ranging interview with the Associated Press.
Mr. Shucet won't discuss VDOT's past politics.
"I can't speak to the who-told-who-to-do-what issues. What did or did not take place internally at VDOT, I'm just not sure. I know what the problem is and how to fix it, so I'm going to spend my time on that rather than figure out how it got here," he said.
About as close as he comes to political daring is to concede that he hopes voters in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads approve regional sales tax increases to finance new projects to mitigate stifling traffic congestion in both areas the state's most populous.
He said the state should at least study an additional bridge over the Potomac River to relieve gridlock on the Capital Beltway's American Legion bridge.
State transportation planners need a system that ponders travel needs five decades off governors and lawmakers can't meet the next generation's demands with existing planning that anticipates only a few years ahead, Mr. Shucet said.
Transportation plans for the future can't be limited to roads, rails and runways either, Mr. Shucet said. Accessibility at home to the services, information, entertainment and even employment that keeps people out of cars, trains and planes also serves the cause, he said.
"Getting information over the Internet that you used to drive your kid to the library for? That's transportation. Getting Pay-Per-View TV when you used to triple-date and drive to the movie and now you don't even leave your home? That's transportation," he said.
"Transportation is dealing with trips that get made as well as giving people options to [avoid] taking a trip," Mr. Shucet said.


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