Biden Names Former CO, DE Transportation Chief Shailen Bhatt to Head FHWA

President Biden yesterday nominated Shailen Bhatt, former secretary of transportation in two different state governments (Colorado and Delaware), to be his long-awaited head of the Federal Highway Administration.

Running a state DOT or highway bureau is perhaps the most common job qualification for past FHWA Administrators, going all the way back to Frank DuPont in 1953 (also a former head of Delaware DOT’s predecessor agency). That club later includes Bert Tallamy (New York), Rex Whitton (Missouri), Karl Bowers (South Carolina), Ray Barnhart (Texas), Tom Larson (Pennsylvania), Rodney Slater (Arkansas), Mary Peters (Arizona), and Victor Mendez (Arizona again).

The post of FHWA Administrator has been vacant since the end of the Trump Administration. A full 18 months having lapsed since President Biden took office, it was beginning to look like the White House was never going to make a nomination to run FHWA, which has the highest budget of any of the U.S. Department of Transportation modal administrations.

The FHWA job primarily oversees the distribution of about $70 billion per year in highway grant funding to the 50 state DOTs, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico and other territories. The primary stakeholder group for FHWA’s work, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, was pleased with the announcement. AASHTO executive director Jim Tymon said ““Shailen Bhatt has been a tireless transportation advocate for decades, especially in the areas of safety and technology, and he makes an excellent choice by the Biden administration to lead FHWA. His leadership roles…demonstrate his ability to bring people together to ensure we have a safe, sustainable, equitable, and multi-modal transportation system that enables mobility for everyone.”

The nomination now goes to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, where it will be overseen by chairman Tom Carper (D-DE), who said “Shailen Bhatt’s resume is nearly perfect for leading a transportation agency with such a critical infrastructure mission. In addition to serving as a presidential appointee at the U.S. Department of Transportation, he has also experience at the state level, leading the Colorado and Delaware Departments of Transportation. I have a long history of working with Shailen, and he is an outstanding choice.”

From the beginning of the Obama Administration (starting in February 2009), Bhatt was the #3 political appointee at FHWA, the Associate Administrator for Policy and Government Affairs, where he worked extensively in getting FHWA’s ARRA stimulus money out to the public as fast as possible with as few negative headlines as possible. The White House point person overseeing ARRA was Vice President Joe Biden, and Bhatt being on Team Biden’s radar in this FHWA role may have helped lead to Bhatt being named Delaware Secretary of Transportation in July 2011, where he remained for three-and-a-half years, compiling a commendable record there.

In December 2014, Bhatt moved west, taking a job running the DOT of a larger state as Executive Director of the Colorado DOT for three more years, where his record was, again, commendable by all accounts. Then, in fall 2017, he switched gears and left state government to work as the head of ITS America. (Today, it is hard to remember just how close the whole automated vehicle/Smart City utopian future seemed in the 2014-2018 period, but it was a powerful vision then.) Bhatt left ITS America to take a post at engineering giant AECOM as “Senior VP – Global Transportation Innovation and Alternative Delivery” eleven months ago.

As mentioned above, the nomination now goes to the Environment and Public Works Committee, where chairman Carper said he would be “doing my part to expeditiously advance his nomination and confirm him for this important role.” If the Administration can get all of Bhatt’s paperwork together in time, it is theoretically possible that he might get a hearing before the Senate goes on a month-long recess on August 5. Even if the hearing is not held by then, unless someone in the GOP makes a determined fight against him, Bhatt should be able to get to a confirmation vote before the Senate adjourns for the midterm elections sometime in October.

But as the Senate tries to move forward, the first job on Bhatt’s resume may come into play. After growing up in Michigan, Bhatt went to college at Western Kentucky, after which he became Deputy Executive Director of the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet. If that carries any weight with Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), the Leader might use some of his behind-the-scenes clout to help clear the way for the nomination – we’ll see. (All other things being equal, McConnell would probably prefer FHWA be run by someone very familiar with the Kentucky side of the Brent Spence Bridge than by someone unfamiliar with it.)

In the same White House announcement, President Biden also nominated Jeff Marootian, formerly of USDOT, to be Assistant Secretary of Energy for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. Like Bhatt, Marootian is also a former state-level DOT head (in this case, the District of Columbia from 2017-2021), which followed his long tour in the Obama Administration at USDOT (White House liaison, then Assistant Secretary for Administration and then the “Chief Sustainability Officer”). He has been serving as a Special Assistant to the President at the White House since January 2021.

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