Born in Boston, Rob Cary was raised in Northern Virginia where he began his professional career after graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree in civil engineering from Virginia Tech. He started his career with the Virginia Department of Transporation in 1992 and has served in five of VDOT’s nine Districts. Cary agreed to take a few minutes to answer some question for VAA readers.
VAA→ Over the last 25 years, you have served in various roles within VDOT. Why did you want to become the Chief Deputy Commissioner?
Cary→ For me, working at an agency like the Virginia Department of Transportation has always been about improving the quality of life for the 8.5 million residents of Virginia. Over my nearly 29-year career, I’ve served in leadership positions in multiple locations across Virginia, overseeing engineering, maintenance, design, and construction activities. Through that work, I had the opportunity to interact with many different types of people, from county board members and state legislators to residents with drainage problems or motorists who want to know how we maintain their roads. These experiences allowed me to see how our agency’s work impacted Virginians locally and on a statewide level.
In 2018, when Gov. Ralph Northam was inaugurated, I was offered the opportunity to serve as Chief Deputy Commissioner. With the technical and people skills I’ve built during my career, I felt this new position would be my best opportunity to improve Virginia residents’ quality of life.
VAA→ The last six months have created a new normal due to COVID-19. What does the new VDOT look like as a result of the pandemic?
Cary→ Impressively, within two weeks, over 4,000 employees transitioned from their offices to teleworking from home, which is a massive change for them. We’ve seen good results so far, and I am not sure we’ll see our offices back at full capacity 100% of the time, as it was in the past. This type of work will likely be conducted in a hybrid fashion, with 50% to 60% of employees in the office on a given day and the others teleworking.
For our field employees, who comprise about half our agency, we’ve implemented safety measures, including maintaining social distance and wearing face coverings. We’ve also worked proactively to introduce new technologies reducing paperwork, increasing efficiency, and allowing employees to use their skills and energy on the challenging jobs at hand instead of clerical processes. The VDOT of the future puts more technology in the hands of our field employees.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also spurred on implementing virtual public involvement, where we conduct public hearings digitally instead of planning in-person gatherings. We think residents appreciate the opportunity to be a part of the process at a time and place convenient for them. There is a wealth of opportunity here.
VAA→ Aside from COVID-19, what do you see as the two or three biggest challenges facing VDOT and the transportation industry?
Cary→ Certainly, one challenge is federal funding and lacking a sustainable, long-term funding program. The federal government has passed a series of continuing resolutions that allow us to address immediate needs but doesn’t give us a funding stream we can count on. With short stop-gap measures, it is difficult to know the long-term funding landscape and makes project planning a greater challenge.
Another challenge or change to be aware of is the coming of connected and autonomous vehicles where cars communicate with each other to create a safer and more efficient driving experience. This kind of advanced technology used to be available only in higher-end vehicles, but we’re seeing them now in more affordable models. We need to be sure we’re designing roads and infrastructure to accommodate this technology and ensure that we’re encouraging the most efficient flow of traffic at higher volumes.
Lastly, one ongoing challenge is preparing and maintaining a skilled, robust workforce, from engineering and design to maintenance and operations. VDOT continues to develop training programs and partnerships with community colleges and four-year institutions to make sure our current and future employees are ready and capable of performing our industry’s jobs. With transportation projects becoming increasingly important and complex, a skilled workforce is necessary to deliver them.
VAA→ Since you have a glass half full mindset, what are the greatest opportunities on the horizon for VDOT and the industry?
Cary→ We have robust bridge and pavement programs that continue to evolve with planning and effective funding. Through SMART SCALE, we have an excellent methodology for determining our greatest needs; through our State of Good Repair Program, we’re putting dollars where it makes the most sense; and through our Comprehensive Maintenance Review, we are ensuring that we’re providing uniform assets and pavements statewide. For example, a primary roadway carrying more than 3,500 vehicles a day in the densely populated Northern Virginia region will be treated identically to one near a more rural area like Bristol or Lynchburg, and a secondary route near the state capital Richmond is treated the same as one near Staunton to the west. This model and approach allow us to more effectively and efficiently distribute our funding, providing an opportunity to give Virginians the same level of service statewide.
Another opportunity from the Comprehensive Maintenance Review was developing a maintenance plan and funding source to address our 25 largest, most complex structures, such as the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel, the Varina-Enon cable-stayed Bridge, the Benjamin Harrison Bridge, and others. In the past, we made repairs on an as-needed basis because we didn’t have the resources to do more. We can now ensure those structures have committed funding for the routine and extraordinary maintenance that will keep them safe and operational for decades
Having a plan that brings sustainability to our pavements, bridges, and special structures is a huge opportunity we haven’t had in the past. Its benefits meet the taxpayers’ expectations.
VAA→ What is one thing people who do not know you will find interesting?
Cary→ I raced sailboats competitively in the United States and Canada. When I was young, I spent summers with my grandmother in Rochester, New York. She signed me up for sailing lessons, and I found a lifelong love for the water. I raced smaller boats like Lasers, 470s, and 420s, and I’ve sailed on the Great Lakes, the Chesapeake Bay, and in the Atlantic Ocean. I sold my boat in 2015, but I’d love to take up racing again, maybe as a crew member on a larger team instead of having my own vessel.
VAA→ Any other thoughts you would like to share with our readers?
Cary→ I’d first like to thank everyone for their efforts during this pandemic. VDOT has continued service without interruption and has made tremendous strides. It has been a challenging time, but between VDOT and our industry partners, we’ve been able to keep our programs and projects moving to make a positive difference in quality of life.
I’d also like to remind everyone that, in our business, safety is priority. We need to continue observing safety precautions to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and keep ourselves, our families, and our colleagues healthy. We also need to be vigilant in our work zones. During this pandemic, I’ve seen the level of speeding and reckless driving in Virginia increase. We have thousands of people working on our roadsides, and we need to make sure they’re able to return home safely each day to their families.