North Carolina's Dept. of Transportation pushed forward to meet the needs of state construction industry stakeholders and residents alike in 2011, thus earning ENR Southeast's designation as "Owner of the Year." Whether it was the completion of the first phase of a $1-billion tollway, use of alternative-project delivery methods to accelerate several major projects or responding rapidly to the damage wrought by Hurricane Irene, NCDOT proved its mettle to North Carolinians in the past year.

"Our members feel like the management and the operations of the DOT are as good as we have ever seen," says Berry Jenkins, director of the heavy-highway division for the Carolinas chapter of the Associated General Contractors in Raleigh.

The department's accomplishments have also been noticed outside of North Carolina. Ananth Prasad, secretary of the Florida Dept. of Transportation, says the recognition "demonstrates how departments of transportation around the country are emphasizing performance management and innovative financing techniques to deliver much-needed transportation infrastructure improvements."

The emphasis on nontraditional approaches didn't end in 2011. In February, the agency landed the third and final slot in a pilot program of the Federal Highway Administration that could enable it to move forward with plans to widen the state's entire 182-mile stretch of Interstate 95. Recently estimated at a cost of $4.4 billion, the expansion would be funded at least partly by statewide tolls on I-95.

A Long Way

Only in recent years has the department earned such high praise. Previously, project funding fluctuations had become almost routine. As an example, the agency's work program hit a high of $1.3 billion in 2004, only to dive to $475 million by the following year.

As recently as 2009—prior to the infusion of $838 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act—NCDOT stated that it only had between $15 million and $20 million available on a monthly basis for traditional bid lettings, 75% lower than in 2008.

At its most basic, the mission of state Transportation Secretary Eugene A. "Gene" Conti since taking the agency's top job in 2008 has been to restore that trust.

"For years, NCDOT promised people a lot of things and maybe forgot to deliver or hoped people would forget what we promised," Conti says. He says that according to state analysis, the agency regularly delivered only about 60% of what it promised and did not have a good handle on its finances.

"We thought that was a bad way to do business," Conti says. New and improved financial systems had already been put in place, but he says transforming the agency largely hinged on becoming more disciplined.

The first step was to put together a work program made up of "real stuff," Conti says. "If you have a program that's built on a more realistic view of what the resources are going to be, you create much more stability," he says, referring to the agency's impact on the state's contractors and engineers.

NCDOT officials "are doing an exceptionally good job of projecting what they'll have available," says AGC's Jenkins. "Contractors are getting paid on time; that instills a confidence level." As a result, the department is receiving competitive bids for projects and attracting quality contractors from outside the state, he adds.