After a long delay, President Joe Biden has announced he will nominate Shailen Bhatt, former head of the Colorado and Delaware departments of transportation and now a senior executive with design firm AECOM, to lead the Federal Highway Administration.
Construction and transportation officials praised Bhatt’s selection, which the White House announced on July 21. His nomination also was sent to the Senate the same day.
If the Senate confirms him, Bhatt would take the top FHWA job as the agency is in year one of the massive task of distributing the highway and bridge portion of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA)—more funding than it has ever had to roll out before.
FHWA's share of the IIJA's $1.2-trillion total is about $350 billion, according to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO).
As Bhatt looks ahead to his scrutiny by the Senate, he has support from a key lawmaker, Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Tom Carper (D-Del.), who called Bhatt, "an outstanding choice,"
Carper noted Bhatt's state DOT stints and said, “Shailen Bhatt’s resume is nearly perfect for leading a transportation agency with such a critical infrastructure mission.
It is Carper’s committee that will hold a confirmation hearing for Bhatt and Carper said, “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.”
But Bhatt appears likely to face tough questioning from the committee's top Republican, Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.), who has criticized some recent FHWA actions.
They include a December guidance memorandum dealing with formula highway funding under the IIJA. The memo says it aims to "encourage" states to devote funds to highway modernization and upgrades. But
Capito contends that the memo aims to restrict state DOTs' flexibility in how they use IIJA dollars.
She also has criticized a July 7 FHWA proposed rule setting performance greenhouse gas emissions performance measures for state DOTs.
Capito said in a July 22 statement sent to ENR, "I't is no secret that I have raised several concerns with FHWA regarding policies like the greenhouse gas performance measure and their [December highway funding] memo, that contradict those negotiated and agreed to in the [IIJA]—all of which I will be discussing with Mr. Bhatt when we meet."
She added, "As always, I will judge this nominee like any other—based upon a holistic look at his professional record, writings and answers to my questions."
Bhatt has long been a familiar face in transportation industry and government circles, having served as executive director of the Colorado DOT from 2014 to 2017, and, before that, as Delaware DOT secretary for three years.
For about the past year, he has been senior vice president for global transportation innovation and alternative delivery with engineering giant AECOM.
Before joining AECOM, Bhatt for four years was president and chief executive officer of ITS America—the Intelligent Transportation Society of America.
He is no stranger to FHWA, having been an associate administrator at the agency during the Obama administration.
The news of Bhatt’s nomination came 18 months after Biden took office and the long delay has been conspicuous.
Industry Groups Weigh In
Jay Hansen, National Asphalt Pavement Association executive vice president for advocacy, said via email, “I’m not sure why it took so long to nominate the FHWA head but it’s really important to have a Senate-confirmed leader.”
Hansen noted that the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act—with its huge amount of highway funding—“is a very complicated bill that is still very much in the implementation phase for many of the federal-aid highway programs.”
He added that he expects Bhatt to be confirmed and NAPA will support the nomination.
Hansen says that Bhatt “will do a good job in leading the agency as it works with state DOTs, local governments and industry to implement IIJA’s new provisions.”
Jim Tymon, AASHTO executive director, said in a statement that 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.”
Brian Turmail, Associated General Contractors of America vice president for public affairs and strategic initiatives, said via email, "We are excited that there is finally a nominee to lead FHWA, especially at a time when the agency has been administering a historic level of funding to repair the nation's roads and bridges."
Linda Bauer Darr, American Council of Engineering Co. president and CEO, said that Bhatt "brings a wealth of private and public expertise when we need it most to ensure the successful implementation of the IIJA."
Darr added, "Because of his role at AECOM, he understands the essential role engineers play in delivering safe, resilient infrastructure."
Dave Bauer, American Road & Transportation Builders Association CEO, said in an interview, "Shailen's seen the federal highway program from the federal side, the state side and the private sector."
Bauer added, "He is obviously qualified for this position and we're enthusiastic that the administration has advanced a Federal Highway nominee as we start to really engage on the implementation of the new infrastructure law."
He said, "For the most part, we've seen what [the administration's] priorities are and I expect him to be a full-throated advocate for them."
Story updated on 7/22/2022 with comments from Senator Capito and ARTBA.