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November 6, 2018 11:15 AM, EST

New Michigan DOT Director Will 'Stay the Course' During Two-Month Term

Michigan DOT Trucks cross the Ambassador Bridge into Detroit. (Carlos Osorio/Associated Press)

After holding various roles at the Michigan Department of Transportation for more than 38 years, Mark Van Port Fleet will serve as the agency’s director for the next two months.

Van Port Fleet’s tenure as director took effect Nov. 1. During his time at MDOT, he has worked as deputy director, chief operations officer, deputy chief engineer and director of the Bureau of Development.

Van Port Fleet

Van Port Fleet

Van Port Fleet will retire at the end of the year. By that point, Gov. Rick Snyder’s term will be ending, and Democrat Gretchen Whitmer will assume the role. Whitmer, elected Nov. 6, will appoint a new DOT director.

His 38 years at MDOT have equipped him with background knowledge about where the agency is headed, Van Port Fleet told Transport Topics. During his short term, he plans to continue leading the agency along the path his predecessors have helped forge.

“I plan on certainly staying the course on several strategic things, such as maintaining our heavy reliance on an asset-management approach, doing our business and keeping our roads in a state of good repair,” Van Port Fleet said.

Asset management is MDOT’s method for maintaining infrastructure. The goal is to prolong assets, such as roads and bridges, for as long as possible through periodic maintenance and repair. For example, Van Port Fleet said a recently reconstructed roadway will need preventative treatment, even in the early stages of its life.

MDOT spokesman Jeff Cranson said the department was one of the first to abandon the “worst first” method of addressing infrastructure needs.

“You have to do that blend of maintenance on some things, doing some heavy repair and then doing replacement on a much smaller segment of the asset,” Van Port Fleet said. “Michigan is known not only nationally, but internationally, by how well we do this. Ultimately, [with] the ‘worst first’ approach, we were having more roads fall into poor condition than we could fix. We were doing it long before it was cool.”

Over the course of his time with MDOT, Van Port Fleet said one of the biggest changes has been the adoption of new technology, which has accelerated the pace of business. He said he started at the agency when he and his fellow engineers hand-drafted work activities.

Snyder

Van Port Fleet’s predecessor, Kirk Steudle, was a big proponent of technology and automation. Steudle recently was appointed senior vice president of Econolite, a company that specializes in intelligent transportation systems and traffic management software. During his tenure, Steudle helped launch MCity, an autonomous-vehicle research center at the University of Michigan as well as the American Center for Mobility, a nonprofit facility dedicated to testing and developing autonomous technology.

To make the most of the road system amid a growing population, Van Port Fleet said automation plays an important role. He said certain tools, such as optimizing signal control and creating flex routes for peak traffic time, can reduce congestion.

“The fact of the matter is, [automation] is coming,” Van Port Fleet said. “Our No. 1 goal as professional engineers is the safety of the transportation system. In Michigan, we’re heavy into the auto manufacturer, so we believe it’s very appropriate for us to work very closely with the auto industry, the auto supply industry [and] the technology industry to advance that.”

Van Port Fleet said he doesn’t have any immediate professional plans after he retires. He said he would like to enjoy his free time golfing and fishing.

He also recognizes that his name is uniquely well-suited for a decadeslong career in transportation.

“I have quite a few modes covered,” Van Port Fleet said.