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Biden taps former DelDOT chief for top highway role

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Former DelDOT Secretary Shailen Bhatt, right, was nominated by President Joe Biden to lead the Federal Highway Administration. Bhatt is pictured here in 2014 with Sen. Tom Carper during a federal visit to the I-495 bridge repair project. | PHOTO COURTESY OF GOVERNOR’S OFFICE

WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden nominated Shailen Bhatt, the former Delaware Department of Transportation secretary in the Markell administration, to lead the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) on Thursday.

The nomination of Bhatt would make him among the highest-profile former state officials serving in the Biden administration, aside from his old boss, former Gov. Jack Markell, who was confirmed as the ambassador to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Bhatt is currently the senior vice president of global transportation innovation and alternative delivery at AECOM, a multinational infrastructure consulting firm. He previously served as the executive director of the Colorado Department of Transportation from 2015 to 2017 and was a Cabinet secretary of DelDOT from 2010 to 2015.

An appointment to head FHWA would be a return to Washington for Bhatt, however, as he joined DelDOT after serving as the associate administer of the federal agency from 2009 to 2011. FHWA oversees the National Highway System, ranging from interstates to state highways important to national needs, as well as roads on federal lands.

Biden had yet to nominate someone for the key role under the U.S. Department of Transportation led by Secretary Pete Buttigieg, and if confirmed, Bhatt would inherit an agency set to distribute about $350 billion from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act – the largest sum in its history.

He already received a vote of support from Delaware Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), who chairs the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.

“From the day he took office, President Biden has made rebuilding our nation’s infrastructure — and doing so in a way that reduces emissions, boosts resilience, improves safety, and connects communities — a top priority,” Carper said in a statement. “Shailen Bhatt’s resume is nearly perfect for leading a transportation agency with such a critical infrastructure mission … I have a long history of working with Shailen, and he is an outstanding choice. I’m confident that he won’t need any on-the-job training and look forward to doing my part to expeditiously advance his nomination and confirm him for this important role.”

During his time in Delaware, Bhatt completed or initiated a number of substantial infrastructure projects, including the Indian River Inlet Bridge, high-speed toll lanes on Interstate 95, the I-95 interchanges at Routes 1 and 202, and improvements to South Market Street in Wilmington and Elkton Road in Newark. DelDOT also opened its newest DMV facility near Delaware City.

A highlight of his time here may have been the 2014 closure of the I-495 bridge over the Christina River in Wilmington after engineers discovered improperly placed dirt had shifted support piers.  The bridge was shut down, redirecting all traffic to I-95 through Wilmington and worsening traffic. Working around the clock, Bhatt rallied DelDOT to repair the bridge and reopen it after less than three months, shattering the expected timelines.

Known for his fiscal constraint, the department reigned in its operating budget while reducing debt obligations by 30% and maintaining its credit rating during his tenure. It also rebalanced its Transportation Trust Fund in order to ensure that projects scheduled into the future would be funded when the time arrived.

His term wasn’t free of criticism though, as plans to double DART bus fares and change its approach to paratransit resources were unpopular with many users.

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