Carlos Braceras leads Utah into new mobility era

Whether we drive on the roads, take a bus, or ride a bike, transportation is front and center in our daily lives. When it’s working well, we don’t notice it. When it’s not, we do.

Utah has invested heavily in its transportation system and is reaping the benefits. Utahns enjoy living in a state with a great quality of life, relatively low cost of living, low unemployment, and steady job growth.

Not only is the economy booming but so is our population. Utah is in the midst of significant change as it becomes increasingly more urban and demographically diverse. There is a risk that the opportunities associated with this growth are eclipsed by its challenges. A well-functioning transportation system will be key to mitigating that risk.

How will Utahns maintain and enhance their quality of life when there will be many more people and goods to move around? I recently sat down with Carlos Braceras, the Executive Director of the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT), to pose the question.

First, to truly understand how UDOT has become a national leader, it’s important to understand a little bit about Carlos.

Carlos is very hesitant to talk about himself, stating that UDOT’s contributions to Utah’s successes aren’t about him but about his fellow employees. After a bit of prodding, however, I am able to get a few instructive details that provide insight into how he leads the Department.

Carlos received a Bachelor of Science in Geology at the University of Vermont and spent his days after graduation studying rocks outdoors while attending various field camps. When a mentor advised him to return to school, Carlos packed his belongings into an old pickup truck and drove to Utah. He attended the University of Utah (U of U), getting another Bachelor of Science, this time in Civil Engineering, while also minoring in Physics and Math.

In 1986 as a U of U undergraduate, Carlos saw a flyer for a summer internship posted on a wall in the Merrill engineering building. He thought that interning for UDOT would make a nice summer gig and interviewed for the position. That summer internship turned into a 31-year career.

“Nobody ever said ‘no,’” he said as he recalled his early UDOT career. “If you were willing to ask questions and you were willing to push things, you could do it. There were no limits. It was fun and it was exciting and you could make a difference everyday.”

Carlos brings a lot of “street cred” to the Executive Director position. His employees respect him and it’s not hard to see why. When asked about the various positions he’s held at UDOT, he rattles off an extensive list: Materials Lab Technician, Field Engineer, Design Engineer, Hydraulics Engineer, Value Engineer, Preconstruction Engineer, Chief Geotechnical Engineer, Squad Leader, Region Director, Deputy Director, and Executive Director.

Even with all of this experience he’s quick to acknowledge that he doesn’t know everything. “You can’t remember how you used to do it…and even believe for a minute that that’s the way it is today. If you try to say you know how to do it, they’re gonna roll their eyes at you.” Carlos is very passionate when speaking about UDOT’s employees. It’s evident he cares strongly about them.

“I want people to know what they stand for,” says Carlos. “Everyone has very good core values that drive them but most people don’t take the time to understand what [those values] are and who they are.” Carlos admits that all of this sounds a bit mushy. So how does UDOT translate a values-based culture into success? Surprisingly, for a DOT known nationally for its ability to get things done, it’s not about the outcome.

“If we focus on doing things the right way for the right reasons, good things will happen and we will get the outcomes we need,” says Carlos. “We can see our work’s results directly and how it affects our families, our communities, and our state.”

UDOT has seven values that underpin this approach, along with a visionmission, and three strategic goals. One value that has become a defining characteristic for UDOT is innovation. 

UDOT is unequivocally the most innovative DOT in the country, leading the nation in the way it measures the performance of Utah’s transportation system, moves bridges into place overnight, and gathers real-time data of nearly all the signals in the state.

Why are there so many great things happening at UDOT? Well, employees are allowed to mess up. “Mistakes that are well thought through with good intentions are celebrated, not punished,” says Carlos. “We have created a culture where people feel safe to try new things.”

Carlos notes that while the natural human tendency is to hide a mistake or be embarrassed by it, UDOT encourages employees to celebrate their mistakes and even share them with others to encourage information sharing and collaboration.

This approach to innovation will be needed more than ever. Last month at UDOT’s Annual Conference, Carlos released what he has dubbed UDOT’s Top Ten.”Calling them “audacious and ambitious steps we need to take over the next 3-4 years,” he recognizes that many DOTs would not be able to achieve them. Here’s a glimpse at a few:

A Leader in Connected Autonomous Vehicles

“Utah is uniquely situated right now to lead the nation in connected autonomous vehicles (CAVs),” says Carlos. Come to find out, the world’s largest pilot program for connected, integrated vehicle technology is right in our own backyard.

Through a joint partnership with the Utah Transit Authority (UTA), buses running on Redwood Road are connected via state-of-the-art technology to transmitters at signalized intersections. Traffic signals know the bus schedule, how many people are on the bus, and how many vehicles are approaching from each leg of the intersection. If the bus is running late, the signals can prioritize them by literally giving them a green light to get back on schedule.

This first-of-its-kind approach in leveraging innovative technology to improve mobility didn’t happen overnight. Twenty-five years ago, UDOT started a robust partnership with private sector telecoms to install fiber optics and conduit through a value-to-value exchange. This partnership provided critical broadband services to rural parts of Utah and gave UDOT an opportunity to create a system in which virtually every signal in the state operates on one system. This means that UDOT’s traffic engineers in Salt Lake can change signal timing in St. George with a few clicks of the mouse.

What makes UDOT’s statewide signal system even more important is how it will be able to interact directly with CAVs in the future. In order to operate, CAVs need a Dedicated Short Range Communications (DSRC) device installed. In a presentation Carlos gave to the Legislature’s Transportation Interim Committee in July of this year, he said that virtually all vehicles will have DSRC capabilities by 2035.

CAVs will be able to “talk” directly to Utah’s connected backbone of smart infrastructure. This means that in the future, for example, drivers could be alerted to icy bridges and crashes on the road ahead. Likewise, vehicles will be able to tell UDOT when they encounter hazards such as potholes or dangerous road conditions.  There are myriad potential positive implications for CAVs that can talk with the existing transportation infrastructure. In addition to making our lives more convenient, this technology will also make us safer.

Safest DOT in the Country

Another one of UDOT’s Top Ten is to make UDOT the safest DOT in the country. With 94% of crashes attributed to human error, the aforementioned CAV technology has the potential to put UDOT’s goal of Zero Fatalities well within reach. As the program website states, “Some people may think zero is an impossible goal, but when it comes to your life, or the lives of your friends and family, what other number would be acceptable? We’re aiming for Zero Fatalities because everyone matters.”

Decreased Travel Times in Urban Areas

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, Utah is the 8th most urbanized state in the country. Utah’s Wasatch Front is experiencing the traffic congestion that comes with a booming economy and growing population. This makes Carlos’ target of decreasing travel times in urban areas and not just reducing the growth all the more ambitious.

How can Utah’s transportation agencies facilitate the best outcomes for the transportation system and utilize finite taxpayer resources most effectively? It will require a multifaceted approach to investing in the highest value transportation projects regardless of mode. “We’re not the Department of Roads. We’re the Department of Transportation,” Carlos points out. “Transit will play an important role in our future.”

When I ask him about the changes currently being considered by the Legislatively created Transportation Governance and Funding Task Force regarding how UTA is governed vis-a-vis UDOT, Carlos steps back to express appreciation that policymakers recognize the importance of transportation to quality of life. “I’m so encouraged that there is that recognition by our elected leaders of the importance of transit.”

Carlos is quick to applaud the collaboration UDOT enjoys with UTA. “The partnership we have with UTA is unique and an example for the rest of the country. Their success is our success.” However, he cautions that public trust is critical to this success. He turns again to UDOT’s values, one of which is trust.

“Working together between the elected officials, UTA, and UDOT, we need to recognize that trust is the currency we have with the public. If the public trusts us as public officials, they will provide us with the resources to do our jobs.”

To that end, Carlos wants to see UDOT reach a 90% public approval rating in the next few years. “The fact that people recognize the importance of transportation is kind of cool,” states Carlos. “In Utah, transportation has been and will continue to be part of our story.”

As it turns out, Utah’s page-turning story has many more interesting chapters yet to be written.

Muriel Xochimitl is President of X-Factor Strategic Communications, a communications consulting firm helping clients meet their long-term goals and objectives through strategic visioning, public relations, public outreach, and stakeholder facilitation. Muriel has worked as the Wasatch Front Regional Council Government Affairs and Communications Director, and as a Communications Manager for the Utah Department of Transportation.