Transportation Commissioner John Schroer sets ambitious goals for Tennessee Department of Transportation

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When John Schroer was appointed Commissioner of Transportation for the state of Tennessee in 2011, he immediately took a hands-on approach to helping local leaders find solutions to their transportation challenges across the state while helping to save taxpayer money at the same time.

Within weeks of his appointment in 2011, Schroer initiated a “top to bottom” review of TDOT, including its organization, processes and leadership. “We’ve basically broken down the department and built it back up,” said Schroer in a recent conversation with Smart Growth America. “We looked at everything we did and analyzed it from a production and financial standpoint.”

In 2012, Schroer partnered with Smart Growth America and his TDOT leaders to find ways the department could use its resources more efficiently, create better outcomes and save taxpayer money. The resulting guide, Transportation Process Alternatives for Tennessee – Removing Barriers to Smarter Transportation Investments, was the product of months of collaboration between Smart Growth America experts, TDOT management, regional and community representatives, and transportation advocates. According to Schroer, the project is “intended to serve as a guide for our department’s program activities as we continue to evaluate our transportation needs and priorities with the goals of better stimulating our economy, protecting our environment and building our communities.”

At the time, the department had nine times more projects in its work plan than it could fund. Recognizing this problem, TDOT and the Smart Growth America team concluded that the department should audit the existing work program, eliminate projects that are no longer needed, and “right-size” projects that can be improved.

The concept of “right-sizing” means that transportation projects are tailored to maximize return on investment — to have the lowest cost for the biggest benefit. The team found that many transportation projects could get 80-90% of the transportation outcome needed with an improvement to the network that cost up to one-tenth of the initial proposal. TDOT decided to review their long-range plans to identify projects that could be right-sized to be more cost effective and more responsive to community needs.

Taxpayers in Tennessee have already saved millions of dollars as a result of this approach to transportation projects throughout the state. After reviewing just the first five projects, TDOT found a cost savings of over $171 million through right-sizing the scope of work. In one project alone in Jackson County, TDOT was able to reduce the overall cost from an estimated $65 million to only $340,000 while still achieving the same safety and efficiency outcomes.

The department’s reorganization was also inspired by an ambitious “Summer Tour” program, which Schroer began in 2011 and has continued ever since. Traversing thousands of miles across the state in a TDOT-emblazoned bus, Schroer and other department managers visited TDOT projects and facilities, met and engaged with agency employees and gathered ideas on how TDOT could become more efficient.

“Not only was it important to me as TDOT’s new Commissioner to see the work we’re doing all over the state, but I wanted to provide the same opportunity to our state and local partners,” said Schroer in an interview with Better Roads magazine. “This was also an excellent opportunity to hear concerns within communities and have productive discussions about improving Tennessee’s transportation system.”

While some state transportation departments put a primary focus on moving goods and people, his goal is even simpler. “Our mission is to be the best state DOT in the nation,” said Schroer.

Schroer encourages his staff to think creatively in solving challenges facing the department. “In a lot of cases, people will say ‘failure is not an option’. But failure in my department is an option because you seldom succeed without failing first. If you’re scared of failure, then you won’t challenge anything.”

By at least one performance measure, TDOT is already among national leaders. According to Repair Priorities 2014, a recent report by Smart Growth America, only 8% of Tennessee state roads are graded in ‘poor’ condition, compared to a national average of 21%. Conversely, 61% of the state’s roads are in rated in ‘good’ condition, while the national average is only 37%. The figures are a result of TDOT’s dedication to prioritizing investment in roadway repair and preservation while only pursing costly road expansion projects in critical instances.

As a former mayor, Schroer also understands the relationship between land use and transportation, and takes a strategic approach to helping communities make better development decisions through more effective outreach. “I found when I moved into this position, a lot of cities did a poor job of long-range planning, in how they did zoning, and how they approved projects,” said Schroer. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked to build a bypass to a bypass.”

Over time, many Tennessee communities have “self-inflicted” transportation problems on themselves by not taking advantage of infill development opportunities. For example, new schools in the state are typically built on inexpensive land on the outskirts of town. Schroer explains it would be more cost-effective for a school board to buy a more expensive piece of close-in property with existing transportation options nearby, rather than building on the outskirts of town, costing the state upwards of $40 million on a new road to service it.

“We have a whole division that is working with communities to try and help them not make bad planning decisions,” said Schroer. “When that happens, the state saves money.”

Previous to his state service, Commissioner Schroer was the Mayor of Franklin, Tennessee beginning with his election in 2007. During his tenure, he was involved in the Nashville Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, serving on its executive committee. As mayor, he was a member of the Regional Transportation Authority, and continues to be a member of each of those public bodies as Commissioner of Transportation.