Taking too long? Close loading screen.
Meet Michigan DOT’s new director Paul Ajegba! For more than 29 years as a civil engineer at MDOT to now leading the department, the director has a lot to say about how he plans on building on Michigan’s role as a leader in traditional and new transportation infrastructure.
In this edition of POLICYSMART, hear his views on Michigan’s new governor’s gas tax proposal, balancing the deployment of traditional infrastructure with new technologies, shared mobility, DSRC v. 5G and maintaining Michigan’s leading role in research in the connected and autonomous spaces.
It was also a pleasure to hear his work in advancing diversity in the field of transportation as he discusses the program that earned him The National Society of Black Engineers very first Transportation and Infrastructure Special Interest Group Lifetime Achievement Award.

 

 

Transcript

 

Regina: (00:05) From GRIDSMART Technologies, I’m Regina Hopper. Welcome to POLICYSMART.

Regina: (00:18) So welcome to this edition of POLICYSMART. We’re at the ITS America show in Washington, D.C., and the star of the state of Michigan DOT, the new director, Director Ajegba. I got it right. Okay.

Director Ajegba: (00:34) That’s correct. The star?

Regina: (00:35) The star of Michigan. Yeah. Well, well you know, you and the governor, right?

Director Ajegba: (00:39) Oh my goodness.

Regina: (00:40) Brand new stars of the state of Michigan. But you are the new director of Michigan DOT. I think you started in January. So welcome to being a part of this whole like larger transportation world. Tell us a little bit about how you got there.

Director Ajegba: (00:56) Thank you, Regina. Thanks for having me. Oh, how do I, how do I get here? I started in the department about 29 years ago, almost 29 years ago as an entry level engineer right out of college and that at the time – we still have the program – it’s called the Engineering Development Program where you’re bringing in new engineers and they kind of rotate you around the department for about 18 to 24 months in different areas of, of the department. And after I did the 24 months period is done. Yeah. You sit down with your mentor and decide which of the areas you like most and where you would like to be. It’s usually a mutual agreement between the student and the manager and they place you and then from there, you navigate your, your, your career. And that’s how I’ve been able to do that. And here I am almost 29 years ago.

Regina: (01:51) Wow. And so now you’re the director and under a new governor in the state of Michigan. So a little bit of background on you and how you decided that you would get into transportation.

Director Ajegba: (02:04) Well, I, uh, always tell people that I got into Civil Engineering by default. My goal was to be an architect starting off.

Regina: (02:14) Oh, really?

Director Ajegba: (02:14) Yes. But…

Regina: (02:16) Architect like in building?

Director Ajegba: (02:17)Yes, yes. Designing, drawing, and designing buildings. But that didn’t work out too well. I so happened to the part of the architectural program at that time, you have to take some civil engineering classes. When I took the civil engineering class, I really, it kind of came to me. I can understand it, the concept of it. And you know, I was struggling in the architectural studies. I, I didn’t have the patience to draw. And in those days you have to draw everything by hand. We didn’t have the CAD. So I started liking the civil engineering part of it and I decided that I’m going to go into that. So I got an undergraduate in civil engineering from a small school in Texas preview A&M University.

Regina: (03:05) Love it.

Director Ajegba: (03:06) Yes.

Regina: (03:08) Love that school.

Director Ajegba: (03:08) Yes. Thank you. Yeah. Thank you. And then, um, came to Michigan and I went to Grad school at the University of Michigan, and that’s how I got hired by MDOT. And I got into the transportation field and I’ve, I’ve never looked back. I really love it. I love every minute of it.

Regina: (03:24) So what were you, what were you thinking when the governor calls you up and said, you’re going to be, you’re going to be my guy, you’re going to be the head of Michigan DOT?

Director Ajegba: (03:32) Well, obviously I was very excited. I looked at it as a challenge and opportunity to make a difference, an opportunity to help the governor achieve her vision of fixing our roadways that are really crumbling. In Michigan, it’s been almost 40 years of this investment in our infrastructure. And for somebody who’s been in the department for 20 years to have a champion like her come in and say, enough, we got to do something about this. I think it’s a really, it’s an exciting time for us in the department to see that somebody has finally heard what we’ve been saying for a long time that this is coming, this is coming. We got to do something. And she came in and say, yeah, we need to do something, that we need to do something now that, that to me is just wonderful.

Regina: (04:24) You know, fixing the country’s infrastructure is just a problem everywhere. And I’m sure with the, with the wonderful weather that y’all have. It’s wonderful in the winter. But that’s tough. That’s tough on the infrastructure. Yeah. And so, you know, but, but a lot of this comes with the question of funding, and I know that the governor is now put in front of for debate a 45 cent I think gas tax, um, which a lot of states are doing now because they see the federal government, and I’m not putting words in your mouth, but kind of abdicating that sort of, you know, financial role, right? So talk a little bit about what you guys are thinking with regard to the gas tax being the right way. I think she also said if you have a better idea let me know. But um, you know, what do, what are you guys thinking with regard to how the necessary funds need to be raised to invest back into that infrastructure?

Director Ajegba: (05:15) Well if you like look at other states as you mentioned, they are also doing the same thing. Ohio just passed a gas tax, and Ohio has always been ahead of us as far as spending per capita. Right now, Michigan is 46 out of 50 states in spending per capita on our infrastructure. So we’ve been digging ourselves into this big hole for a long time. That’s why when the governor proposed 45 cents and she didn’t just put it on the table, she really means this is how much we need, uh, to really, uh, bring our infrastructure back, because, um, I, I tell you, we have a very, very bold leader. When she met with us at MDOT team say, okay, uh, what is it gonna take to fix this problem? I don’t want any more shell game. And we gave her the numbers and she said, okay, this is what we’re going to take to the people. Never batted an eye. And I think, again, going back to what I said, to have a champion that’s really pushing our cause and want to fix this problem, it’s really a wonderful thing. So I’m, I’m really excited about that. So when people say, well, 45 cents is too much, you got to understand where we’re coming from. We have been way behind. Uh, we haven’t, I mean the last gas tax we passed was seven cents.

Regina: (06:34) Oh, is that right? And when was that?

Director Ajegba: (06:36) That was in 2015. It didn’t even kick in till 2017 and a half of it kicked in 2017. The other half, it still hasn’t kicked in till 2021. While we’re waiting, all our roads are falling into a poor condition, and she said, no more. Let’s, let’s fix this. So I give, I give a lot of credit.

Regina: (06:56) Yeah. You know, so here you are at the ITS America show. I being intelligent, T being transportation, and I know Michigan has been a real leader in what we would call the new mobility, connected autonomous, new modes of transportation, trying to figure out how to take an older industry like the old OEM model and move it into the new shared community model. Tell us a little bit about what, how do you balance, right? Um, the need for fixing what we would call the traditional infrastructure with the need for making sure that a modern infrastructure, which would be a connected infrastructure, smart infrastructure is put in place. How, how do you, how do you do that when, when you see yourself with this big of a hole, right, in just the traditional, how does that work?

Director Ajegba: (07:44) Well, again, I’ll go back to having good leadership, bold leadership. Last week we had the Mackinac Island, um, policy conference, and the governor proposed a new initiative. Part of her speech during that press conference is we’re going to fix the roads and the bridges, but we’re not going to stop there. We’re going to start exploring what the new transportation of the future is gonna look like. And she put a challenge out there for the next uh, auto show, which is coming up in next June. She’s put a proposal out for our companies to compete, to be able to drive autonomous vehicles during the whole conference. To be able to drive people from the convention center to restaurants, to hotels all around in the city.

Regina: (08:34) Oh, interesting. So during the show?

Director Ajegba: (08:36) During the show. Exactly. So this is another way of Michigan raising the bar, and she is in line with, with that. Again, I give her credit. The last governor kind of helped move us in the leadership position, and she has come and picked up where he left off regardless of party and say this is the right thing to do let’s, let’s raise the bar. And I think, again, for us and the department to see that kind of leadership and interest in what we do it’s an exciting thing.

Regina: (09:10) Tell me a little bit about what people think internally at DOT and Michigan on this new mobility. I mean I live in a small town right outside of D.C. Called Old Town Alexandria, and the scooters have come into town and it is a nightmare. I mean it is a nightmare. Everybody wants the new mobility but not everybody understands how to, you know, make it sync with the way that we’ve gotten used to life in traffic. So tell me a little bit about not only your personal philosophy with regard to new mobility systems but the way DOT and under your leadership will sort of approach this.

Director Ajegba: (09:42) I think we have to understand going in that we all have to coexist. Rail, ferry, cars, buses, uh, scooters, you name it, we all have to coexist in this little space. And for us, at the end of the day, that if you look at the, uh, representation we have at the conference today, we didn’t just send people from the Detroit urban area. We also have one of our original engineers from Grand Rapids because we realize there are pockets of other cities in Michigan, not just Detroit.

Regina: (10:19) Right?

Director Ajegba: (10:19) That this technology is moving there, and we have to get them mentally prepared for that as well. So it’s, it’s here to stay. It’s the next frontier. So we might as well all work together to deal with the private sector, public sector, uh, the investor class. Everybody has to chip in and make this work. Because I tell you this new generation, they don’t want to drive.

Regina: (10:46) Yeah, that’s true. They don’t even want a driver’s license.

Director Ajegba: (10:48) Yeah. They don’t want to a driver’s license. They want to live in, in the city where they can walk, play, and do everything right within a very small radius. And I think for us as engineers, transportation, we have to learn to adapt to that. Place making is another big thing where people are, even all the people are moving into the inner city where they can go to the library, go walk around in downtown and do other things, and still feel part of the, uh, the society. And we have to adjust our mindset to, to the new reality.

Regina: (11:28) Are you seeing scooters?

Director Ajegba: (11:30) Oh yeah, absolutely. No, but…

Regina: (11:31) Are they making you crazy?

Director Ajegba: (11:33) No, not really. Again, we, we all have to coexist.

Regina: (11:36) Right.

Director Ajegba: (11:36) Um, just bicycles are everywhere.

Regina: (11:40) Yeah.

Director Ajegba: (11:40) I think it’s a good thing. We just, we just have to learn to understand that the days of building six, seven lanes in the inner city and not make room for uh, you know, bicycles, scooters and all the other modes of transportation is just not realistic any more. You’ll see a lot of cities now narrowing the roadways to make room for a pedestrian, for bicycle, for speed, just as you mentioned. And that’s a new reality.

Regina: (12:09) You know, one of the things I liked most about when these new mobility systems started being talked about in almost a futuristic kind of way was that connected and, in particular, autonomous could open up. It was almost more of an equitable look at transportation, right? Allowing those who necessarily in the past weren’t able to either afford or have access to transportation. What is, what does that equity mean to you as the director?

Director Ajegba: (12:36) I, I will give you a good example. We are beginning to see in Michigan, some cities are saying, um, you know, I, I was trained as an engineer that level of service, level of service A means good. It means traffic is moving. You want to keep traffic moving. This is 20 plus years ago, right? I was, that was our mindset coming out of college. Now, level of service F means you have gridlock. You have, you know, congestion. We are beginning to see some cities saying in the inner city, in downtown, it’s okay to have a level of service F because we don’t want people, we want people to get out of their cars and walk around downtown and shop and eat in a restaurant and feel part of the community. And that also encourages walkability. Right? Uh, so for us engineers that were trained, that level of service F is bad. We’re having to adjust the way we think about mobility because now, building a six-lane through downtown is not acceptable anymore. Three lanes, two lanes, one lane going each way and the tunneling, they, uh, it backs up during rush hour. But if the cities are okay with it, then we should be fine.

Regina: (13:50) Well that’s really interesting. It’s a way in which to bring the communities back by saying driving in a car isn’t necessarily your only options.

Director Ajegba: (13:58) Exactly.

Regina: (13:58) Look around you. Right?

Director Ajegba: (13:59) Park your car and walk around downtown.

Regina: (14:02) You know, we just had a conversation with the CIO, CTO of New York City, and he was saying the same thing, which is they’re, they’re now looking at congestion pricing. And he was like, you know, we’re looking, we’re making people look to see there are options that you have.

Director Ajegba: (14:15) Yeah.

Regina: (14:16) So you know, with Planet M what you guys have done in the past, you have test facilities and, um, all kinds of research facilities in the state of Michigan. As you look forward, what would you like for people to see about Michigan as the place to come to learn about intelligent transportation, new mobility systems, equity, and mobility, etc.?

Director Ajegba: (14:35) As I mentioned, I think that the previous governor and this new governor has done an outstanding job of making Michigan the place for the industry to want to come. They’ve passed legislation way ahead of a whole lot of states that says we’ll let have, um, uh, streets on any given day. You can see how autonomous vehicle they’re driving down in Ann Arbor or Lansing. Uh, even our freeways, we let them do platooning. These are things that are made possible because we have a very proactive and forward thinking leaders that says, yes, we are the automotive capital of the world. We want to stay competitive. We want to stay ahead of the curve, and let’s make it a friendlier environment for companies to want to do that. And I think it is great. We, uh, we are having a lot of interesting companies that, that are testing their products in Michigan. Even though we have MCity at the University of Michigan and uh, American Center for Mobility, uh, all within a few miles of each other, but we are also making – those are tests labs – I’ll go test labs. Well, we are also making our freeways that are a part of that, the extension of that test lab to say, okay, uh, you’ve tested this in, in that, in that lab environment, you want to test it in real life situation, here’s a piece of our freeway, try it and see. And we’ve, we’ve had some good success.

Regina: (16:02) Yeah. I mean Michigan has been very open to, to corporate America. So you’ve got the, you’re the public, right. They’re, the private. You want to build on that then I’m assuming, right? To keep that because every, you know, whenever a new DOT head comes in, it’s one of the first things people want to know is how is he or she going to be receptive to corporate America.

Director Ajegba: (16:20) Oh, well for me, I think it’s easy. It’s an easy transition because I was the Project Manager, the MDOT Project Manager for MCity, right?

Regina: (16:30) Yeah, nobody knew that. So tell us a little bit about that.

Director Ajegba: (16:34) But no, to me, so I was part of the beginning of the whole concept of it and it, it, it helps to see how that has developed from just a five or four sitting around, just throwing ideas around to what it’s become now. So you can’t help but to, to, to see the potential and build on that potential. And that’s what the American Center for Mobility is all about. To say, okay, well MCity is got its limit, this is MCity on steroids. This is another way of moving to, you know, taking it to the next level, and we’ll go one step farther beyond American Center for Mobility. We’ll give you our freeways, we’ll give you a, um, downtown streets to test.

Regina: (17:22) It’s so great.

Director Ajegba: (17:22) Thank you.

Regina: (17:23) Can I ask you a little bit about, about, there’s, there’s always been this talk around 5G versus DSRC versus, now there’s the new CXV decks. Whatever, um, where do you, where do you land on that?

Director Ajegba: (17:37) Well, for us, I think, again, this is an emerging technology, right? Um, we’ve offered both sides the opportunity to say, okay well there’s some on the of DSRC is still the way to go and some say now 5G so, why? We’ve offered a stretch of our freeway in Ann Arbor. Between Ann Arbor and Brighton is a nice uh, ITS freeway there. So why don’t we give one side, let’s say northbound side to DSRC folks and southbound to the 5G folks. Let’s put them out there and test them, and it’s not a competition is to gather datas and see how it could help us down the road. When you talk about Michigan or my role, I’ve been a continuing a business-friendly state. That, that’s one of the things that we’re doing to say, hey we are not stopping, uh, you know, where the last administration left off. We’re going to continue pushing this and make it a place for people to want to come and test their products.

Regina: (18:45) Are you concerned at all about the deployment of 5G? The time it would take to deploy? The way it has to deploy because of the infrastructure? Does that concern you at all?

Director Ajegba: (18:54) Well, the thing that I will say is that this is an emerging technology. It’s, it’s evolving so fast. I mean things, the roadside units we’re putting out there now, in probably five years we may have to go back and retool those, maybe not replace them completely, but maybe putting more new chips, new gadget, whatever. Uh, so %G DSRC, to me it’s still an emerging technology that we don’t know what the potential is going to be or where it’s going to take us. I mean, I just see such a bright future now for the industry that, uh, the sky’s the limit to be honest.

Regina: (19:34) So sort of switching topics on you, um, diversity in the field of transportation is really important. You know, I think all of us, kind of, who’ve been in transportation for awhile look for a way to increase diversity, and you were just awarded the National Society of Black Engineers’ first Transportatio Infrastructure Special Interest Group Lifetime Achievement Award.

Director Ajegba: (19:57) Thank you.

Regina: (19:57) That’s really phenomenal. Tell me what this means to you personally and what you may want to do with it to reach other folks to be more inclusive.

Director Ajegba: (20:08) Thank you. I really appreciate that. Well, what, what I’ve been doing for, probably, we, we started this program about seven years ago now in MDOT where we call it a transportation diversity recruitment program where we bring students in from HBCU schools all over, all over the south. I think this year we’re going to have 20 of them. We bring them into Michigan, we’ll put them in area universities, they in a dorm, and we’ll give him a job for the summer. And they work to get a hands-on experience. They get to learn what the industry’s about and with the hope that eventually they want to work in the civil engineering arena. We know at MDOT, we can’t hire all of them. But if we can provide them the tools and the knowledge they need to stay in the industry and come work for Virginia DOT or um, any other DOT around the country, that means we’ve been able to contribute a little bit to the success of our industry. So that’s the way I approach it. I’ll say now since for the past seven years we’ve had over 60 students come through, so we are doing a little bit of that to help grow diversity in the industry, and I’m really proud of that. And quite frankly that’s, that’s what that award was about.

Regina: (21:31) Well you know, congratulations on the award, but I think, more importantly, congratulations on your desire.

Director Ajegba: (21:37) Thank you. I appreciate that.

Regina: (21:38) You know, to want to bring folks in and make it a more inclusive, a more inclusive industry.

Director Ajegba: (21:44) Thank you so much. Thank you.

Regina: (21:45) It’s such a pleasure to meet you. Thanks for taking the time. We look forward to talking with you again.

Director Ajegba: (21:49) Same here. Thanks for having me.

Regina: (21:51) Thank you so much.

Director Ajegba: (21:52) All right.

Regina: (21:54) So thanks so much for listening and participating in the POLICYSMART podcast. You can download the POLICYSMART app on the Apple App Store and Google Play and you can listen to the podcast on Apple Podcast, Google Play, and now on Spotify. And also please leave a review to help people like you, those interested in the next generation of mobility and intelligent transportation find us.

Recent Blogs

Stay informed and connected with industry insights, company news and personal stories

Maintaining the Human Touch in ITS

I edit several newsletters about transportation, including the AASHTO Daily Transportation Update and the Transportation Communications Newsletter. Each day these publications are filled with news items about technology and how automation is giving us new and exciting...

The ITS Customer Experience Lab: Your Strategic Weapon

President John F. Kennedy once said, “Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.” As the pace of technology innovation increases in the Intelligent Transportation space, chances are you may be finding it harder and harder to keep up. As a leader in your...

GRIT. Grime. Guts

This blog opens a series pulling from my storytelling roots. In the months to come, I will share a run of conversations with indomitable spirits blended with stories from the yesteryear schooling us in leadership, innovation, and doggedness. Dive face-first with me...

Featured Event

FROM THE GROUND UP OCTOBER 8-10, 2019

Join us at INTERSECT19 as we build transportation’s foundation “From The Ground Up.”