Murphy’s Law 2020 #4 DOT

January 27, 2020

The recently formed Transportation Coalition met late last week and welcomed North Dakota’s new Department of Transportation Director, Bill Panos. He came from a similar position in Wyoming before our Governor tagged him a few months ago. Like most in the meeting, I had not heard him speak and shared the group’s unofficial opinion that his enthusiasm and background knowledge was impressive, even kinda catchy. He stated that our state DOT is the smallest in the nation (number of employees) even though we maintain more road mileage than some other states including Wyoming and Alaska. While that agency budget is approximately $1.4 billion, he mentioned that we are operating with a gap of around $2 billion – a number he asked us not to hold him to for now. We are in a better financial position than many states, however, and he mentioned some grants that his department is applying for. Director Panos is hoping that we can use our substantial fund balances (i.e., Legacy Fund) to leverage our way into greater monies from the Feds because so many grants from the national government are dependent on matching funds. He noted that there have been no basic changes in state highway funding in 50 years while talking about how very low the price of money is now. Mr. Panos would like to move the needle on that. There was also talk about how he appreciates the Upper Great Plains Transportation Institute and perhaps move it to be the research division of DOT. Also recognized was the difference between the weather of Wyoming and ND. Something to the effect of “In Wyoming the cold weather comes in from the Rockies, makes a mess and moves on. Here, your cold weather comes in from Canada and sits here. Like a freezer.” And then he acknowledged the deleterious effects of those temps on our roads. Anyway, he seems to be on top of our situation in this state and thanked the veteran staff who has helped him understand the agency. There seems to be reason aplenty to expect further dynamism from this man.