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Publication Number:  FHWA-HRT-19-003    Date:  Spring 2019
Publication Number: FHWA-HRT-19-003
Issue No: Vol. 83 No. 1
Date: Spring 2019


A Conversation With Frederick 'Bud' Wright

The recently retired AASHTO executive director and former FHWA executive director reflects on his 43-year career in transportation.

AASHTO's Bud Wright and FHWA's Thomas Everett stand together.
AASHTO's Bud Wright (left) and FHWA's Thomas Everett (right) sat down together before Wright's retirement at the end of 2018 to capture his reflections on his experiences leading both agencies.

After more than 4 decades and multiple leadership roles in the field of transportation, Frederick G. “Bud” Wright has valuable insights into the industry. Wright had a distinguished career at the Federal Highway Administration, serving as executive director from 2001 to 2008--the first non-engineer to hold the position. As executive director, he managed the daily operations of the agency and its personnel, while advising the administrator, deputy administrator, and senior U.S. Department of Transportation officials.

Wright's earlier leadership positions with FHWA included program manager for safety, director of the Office of Budget and Finance, and administrator of the Nevada Division Office. During his FHWA career, Wright received the Presidential Rank Award, the U.S. Secretary of Transportation's Special Achievement Award, the Federal Highway Administrator's Superior Achievement Award, and the Secretary of Transportation's Team Award for development of the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century.

Beginning in 2012, Wright spent 6 years as executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO). His retirement at the end of 2018 prompted FHWA's current Executive Director, Thomas D. Everett, to interview Wright about his unique perspective on the two organizations, the challenges they face, the relationship between FHWA and the States, and other transportation issues. What follows are excerpts from their discussion.

Everett: Looking back on your time as executive director of FHWA, what were the top challenges you faced, and what did you take away from each experience?

Wright: I always thought the hardest part was maintaining a balance between the loyalty to your career staff and being supportive of the political agenda of any Administration. Career staff expect you to be their voice, their protector, and somebody that makes sure their views are heard and understood. But at the same time, you have to also be the interpreter of the political process and the political decisions, and make sure career staff feel comfortable with the things that are being asked of them.

I actually enjoyed acting in this role, but it was challenging. I recognize that the political agenda at the time was not as partisan as it is right now. In my time at FHWA, you could really say that transportation was largely a bipartisan issue. Both parties were looking to do similar things, to solve the same problems, and so they found ways to come to the middle. The political environment of late has become more challenging.

Everett: You faced a major challenge in August 2007 when the I–35W bridge in Minneapolis, MN, collapsed, killing 13 people and injuring many more. How did that tragedy challenge you as the leader of FHWA?

A bridge collapsed into the water. The Minneapolis city skyline is visible in the background.
In his leadership roles, Wright faced a lot of challenges. One of the most notable was FHWA's response to the I–35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis, MN, in August 2007.
Cars stranded on a collapsed portion of the I-35W bridge.
Under Wright's leadership, FHWA responded to the I–35W bridge collapse by taking a coordinating role, bringing together stakeholders.

Wright: There was a lot of panic initially, and I knew it was important to be a calming presence and to be responsive. A lot of people around the country were looking for answers, and FHWA was the only entity that was going to be able to figure out what had happened and what direction to take. There were several parts of FHWA that had pieces of the responsibility--from the Minnesota Division Office, to the Directors of Field Services, to some program offices, even to the Federal Highway Administrator and the U.S. Secretary of Transportation. And I saw my role as pulling all the pieces together.

In the end, I thought FHWA really showed its positive stuff in the face of this crisis. We knew what to do and got a handle on things pretty quickly and effectively. We coordinated what we were doing and our messaging with the Office of the Secretary, the White House, and others. I remember being with (then) U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters at the White House a couple of days after the incident, and she did a press event at the White House after giving briefings to the Administration leaders.

I thought this was a great example of how FHWA responds to a crisis: remaining calm, making sure people do their jobs, showing competence, and helping the division offices, which are under a lot of pressure from their respective States to immediately deliver things that may be hard to deliver right away. I always wanted to play the role of protecting the divisions and making sure they had the resources needed to work with all the entities involved.

Everett: What is the one accomplishment you are proudest of from your time as executive director of FHWA?

Wright: That is a hard question. This may not be what people expect because it is something that occurred before I was executive director, but I felt proudest around the passage of ISTEA [Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act] in the early 1990s. At the time, I was working as a special assistant in the FHWA administrator's office. I went there after I was in the [Office of Policy and Governmental Affairs], so I had some background with a lot of the issues that were being grappled with. I had the confidence of FHWA political appointees, and I had the chance to spend a lot of time on Capitol Hill with our very senior people, including the administrator and secretary.

Without question, ISTEA was one of the most significant pieces of surface transportation legislation in the 20th century. It really changed the way we think of surface transportation, and I felt I had the chance to be part of that dialogue in a different way than I did as the executive director.

There is no getting around the fact that, in a lot of ways, it is easier when you are the advisor rather than being the person who makes the final decision. A State chief executive officer (CEO) once said to me that it is a lot different being in the room than being in the chair, and at that time I was in the room. It was great fun. I not only got to advise FHWA leadership, but also I was able to advise members of Congress on a piece of legislation that I felt made a real difference.

And then, 1 year after ISTEA passed, I became FHWA division administrator in Nevada, and I was able to be part of implementing the new law. That was the bill that created the transportation enhancement program, and we did one of the first transportation enhancement projects in the Nation in Las Vegas--an urban, overhead pedestrian crossing. Before then, thousands of people would cross that intersection at grade, and it was a mess, as you can imagine. This new program made it possible for projects to address those kinds of situations. It was really cool.

But, please know there are a lot of things that happened while I was executive director that I can say I was proud of. And I was certainly proud to serve as executive director. The thing I remember most about FHWA, whether I was the executive director or in any other position, is that everyone wants leadership to succeed, especially when they can see that you trust them and empower them.

Everett: In your role as executive director for AASHTO, you have observed FHWA through a different lens. From that perspective, how has FHWA changed since you were our executive director?

Wright: I think it has changed in some ways. During much of my career at FHWA, we were still more in the era of project oversight and just starting to enter the era of stewardship. Our relationships then were not as strong with State departments of transportation as what I see today. For the most part, I think that is because it was not clear in every instance that we were trying to be on the same page with the States. There was a little bit more of a focus on FHWA being there just to make sure everyone was abiding by the rules. Also, laws about more local empowerment were just starting to take hold in the 1980s and 1990s, and this was a real change for a lot of Division Offices. We were struggling with how to strike the right balance of making sure that Federal resources were being used in accordance with the law, but at the same time, not standing over States as a regulator.

FHWA has come a long way in changing from that mode of operating, partly out of necessity because the agency has far fewer employees than it did in those days. This change--from regulator to partner--has been one of [the] most positive developments. I hope this direction continues.

Everett: FHWA is interested in sharpening our focus, making sure we are using our available resources on those things that add the most value to our programs and partners. As you think about the future, where should FHWA be focusing?

Wright: FHWA will always play an important role in helping State DOTs work through the process. A lot of it has to do with interactions with other Federal agencies. This can be within the Department of Transportation or in other places in the Federal Government.

FHWA has to continue to lead in research and innovation. When resources are limited and when budgets are tight, funding for research does not have that same constituency as funding for delivering projects. I think it is important that FHWA take the lead because it is hard for any other organization to do it. FHWA should continue to push research results and deploy innovations through programs like Every Day Counts and the second Strategic Highway Research Program.

What I have seen both while I was at FHWA and at AASHTO is that States can be relatively conservative because they are working with public resources. It is difficult for them to justify using new products or techniques that are not state of the practice. FHWA needs to continue to push innovations. Otherwise, it is just too easy for a State or local agency to fall into a trap of not wanting to take a risk without that push and support from FHWA. Research and innovation deployment go hand in hand.

Bud Wright and former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters hold a plaque.
Wright and former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters pose for a photo together following an award ceremony.

Everett: Are there one or two things FHWA could do differently, or stop doing altogether?

Wright: When I was between FHWA and AASHTO jobs, I remember somebody from the industry asking me why we even need a Federal Highway Administration and what is it that FHWA is doing that States could not do themselves. It threw me that someone could have that point of view. It is important that FHWA have a broad, comprehensive agenda. And having represented both sides, I'd say one of the keys in working with States is having offices in every State like FHWA Division Offices. I think the other modes lack this advantage, and, maybe in the future, having a one-stop shop for a combined surface transportation program would not be a bad thing. Some of [the] good things that FHWA has been able to do on the highway side could be shared with the other modes, and I think the delivery of transportation services could be improved.

Everett: The topic of FHWA's organizational structure most likely came up at least once while you were executive director. As FHWA works to sharpen its focus, optimize the use of its resources, and organize for the future, what do you view as the most important considerations going forward?

Wright: If I had to say what is most important looking at FHWA's organizational structure going forward, it is making sure you do not lose the focus on State-level relationships. I think State-level presence is key. It is the level at which support and assistance really make a difference. It really works when FHWA takes the partnership approach that it has taken.

FHWA Division Offices should be part of the regular meetings that take place in a State, with FHWA present to help States get things done and not just to say if they are following a rule. This, to me, is the most important thing. Could you reorganize FHWA headquarters and do things differently? You might, but I am not sure that would change anything substantially and I'm not sure that is where I would put my focus. I would make sure that whatever organizational structure FHWA has makes the relationships with States the strongest they can be.

Everett: Let us shift to your transition to AASHTO. When you joined AASHTO in 2012, about 5 years after leaving FHWA, how did your experience at the helm of FHWA help you prepare for the executive director role at AASHTO?

Wright: It helped a lot. First of all, I had many relationships both with FHWA staff and with the CEOs of State DOTs. That helped tremendously. And, having led FHWA helped me with decisionmaking. Even though I was not facing the exact same issues and decisions, I had the confidence to know the challenges at hand were not so out of the box that I could not manage them. It made me feel more confident early on.

But, what I did learn quickly is that I knew diddly about running an association, particularly the business aspects. Leading an association was a lot different than being the executive director of a Federal agency. I was not prepared to have to address things like changes to the rules with the Affordable Care Act, for example. The Office of Human Resources at FHWA would just take care of that, unlike at AASHTO. Also, while AASHTO is a nonprofit, it also is a business. I have to be able to pay salaries and pay rent. I had not played that role before, and it was a learning curve. But, I did learn at FHWA (as executive director and in the other positions I held) that I can figure things out and learn who to rely on for the best advice.

Bud Wright and two other FHWA employees cut a cake together during a celebration.
Wright helps to cut a cake with other FHWA employees as part of a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Interstate highway system in 2006.

Everett: What were your priorities at AASHTO?

Wright: At the time I joined AASHTO, we were on the cusp of needing a new surface transportation reauthorization. It was important that we worked with our membership to figure out what States wanted in reauthorization. More important, perhaps, is that we had not redone a strategic plan in 7 years and, as part of that, defining what members wanted the association to be. It was important to me that the membership define AASHTO. We have done that and we continue to emphasize that everything we do is member driven. AASHTO exists only because State DOTs want it to exist, and the members have to drive AASHTO's priorities.

I also thought it was important that AASHTO assist the States in focusing on transportation solutions rather than modal solutions. I started by spending time just listening to where the members wanted to go with this. I think most States do a much better job at this now compared to what they did 5 years ago. The focus on transportation solutions, as well as the AASHTO reorganization, actually came out of our strategic planning process.

Everett: I have always felt that FHWA and AASHTO have had a productive and healthy relationship. Although positions or objectives may sometimes differ, we've historically been able to work through those differences and advance our programs. From your perspective as former executive director at both FHWA and AASHTO, what has worked well and what needs improvement?

Wright: I agree about the importance and strength of the relationship. One of the things that I had to occasionally remind your FHWA predecessors of--and myself sometimes too--is that AASHTO is not synonymous with State DOTs. It is an association that represents State DOTs, and primarily we function here in Washington, DC. FHWA has sometimes believed that if you had the relationship with AASHTO then you have covered all the States. With FHWA Division Offices in every State, I do not think you can consider discussions in DC with AASHTO synonymous with talking to all the individual State DOTs. The relationship with AASHTO is an important one because it does have a sense of the pulse of the State DOTs. However, AASHTO members expect to have the kind of relationship with FHWA and USDOT where we can make sure their views are heard by senior FHWA officials.

But would I change anything? Well, as I mentioned, the relationships between FHWA Division Offices and State DOTs are so important that I think AASHTO and FHWA leadership in headquarters could work more on making sure relationships between individual division administrators and individual State CEOs are strong. We could be making sure the parties trust each other, even when they do not agree, and that they can have collegial conversations. AASHTO and FHWA could do this in such a way that we are not stepping over boundaries.

Rick Capka and Bud Wright shake hands.
Former Federal Highway Administrator Rick Capka honors Wright with his Senior Executive Service flag during Wright's retirement from Federal service in 2008.

Everett: AASHTO has a new executive director, Jim Tymon, and I am new to the executive director role at FHWA. What general advice can you offer me and Jim in our new roles? By the way, Jim and I are off to a great start. We found out that we grew up in the same town and went to the same high school.

Wright: That is really great. I would say to you both to focus on people. Relationships are so important. I am not just talking between you and Jim and the other senior people. I'm talking about relationships across the board. If people see that you are focused on them, empowering them, that you care about them, they are going to want to support you. I think Jim knows that and I would give you the exact same advice. For him, it is his members and his staff. For you, I think it is State CEOs, your own staff, and political leaders as well. As I said at the beginning, your staff members will look to you as their protector and advocate. And you will decide a lot about the careers of individual people. I never took that responsibility lightly, whether at FHWA or at AASHTO. It weighed on me.

The people are the best part of your job. Dealing with people can be the most enjoyable--and can be the most challenging--aspect. You get all the work you need to get done by focusing on the people, and making sure they have what they need to do their jobs within your power and within your limits. And, do it as compassionately as you can.

Everett: For what it is worth, you have left that legacy at FHWA of focusing on people. You were that kind of leader that cared about people. The things you did, your management style, demonstrated this. It meant a lot to us at FHWA. It still does.



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