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Former DelDOT chief Bhatt confirmed to top highway role

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Former DelDOT Secretary Shailen Bhatt, right, was confirmed 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 – Shailen Bhatt, the former Delaware Department of Transportation secretary in the Markell administration, was confirmed earlier this month to lead the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA).

The Dec. 8 Senate confirmation puts Bhatt 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). He is the first person of Indian descent to lead the agency as the 21st administrator.

Bhatt was most recently 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.

The appointment to head FHWA is a return to Washington for Bhatt, however, as he joined DelDOT after serving as the associate administrator 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.

“From his leadership of the Colorado and Delaware Departments of Transportation, to his work in the private sector, to his service at FHWA during the Obama Administration, Mr. Bhatt brings a wealth of transportation experience to USDOT,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who will oversee Bhatt’s FHWA, said in a statement. “His leadership will be a tremendous asset as we continue to implement the largest investment in our nation’s roads, bridges and highways in a generation, and we are thrilled to have him on our team.”

As the first FHWA chief confirmed in the Biden administration, Bhatt will lead the administration of more than $350 billion of President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, including formula and competitive grant programs that are available to a range of grant recipients, including state departments of transportation, metropolitan planning organizations, local governments, tribes, territories and federal land management agencies.

“I am honored to return to the U.S. Department of Transportation to lead the Federal Highway Administration as we deliver the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and make transformational investments modernizing our nation’s transportation system,” Bhatt said in a statement

Delaware Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), who chairs the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works that heard Bhatt’s nomination and worked with him while he was at DelDOT, voiced his support.

“As I said when President Biden nominated him in July of this year, Shailen Bhatt has a nearly perfect resume for leading the Federal Highway Administration. With his confirmation receiving unanimous support in the Senate, it’s clear that he is the right person for the job,” Carper said in a statement. “Shailen’s leadership in this role will be critical, especially as we continue the urgent work of implementing our historic investments in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law,” Carper continued. “Importantly, he is committed to rebuilding our nation’s roads, highways, and bridges in a way that prioritizes safety, equity, and resilience. I congratulate Shailen on his confirmation and look forward to working together on creating a more sustainable future for our transportation infrastructure.”

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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