For an unprecedented second time in four years, a Utahn will lead one of the nation's top professional organizations in the field of transportation.
John Njord, executive director of the Utah Department of Transportation, will be inducted as president of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials at the group's annual meeting in Minneapolis on Tuesday.
The 42-year-old Njord again follows in the footsteps of Tom Warne, whom he succeeded as UDOT chief. Warne was president of AASHTO, in 1999-2000.
AASHTO, founded in 1914, when most of the country's roads were made of dirt, is the professional organization of the nation's 50 state transportation departments.
Njord's selection assures a continued high profile for Utah in the politically volatile world of federal transportation funding. Njord will be leading the states' charge for increased or at least level spending for future transportation projects.
This fall, Congress will consider re-authorization of the federal transportation funding act, which expires at the end of this month. Without a new one, or with a funding bill that fails to keep up with the states' perceived needs, Njord and 49 other DOT executives will be scrambling to pay for road, airport, transit and other vital transportation projects.
"We're talking about a funding bill that represents over $200 million per year in highway funding, plus transit funding on top of that, that will be re-authorized during my tenure as AASHTO president," Njord said. "So our ability to influence what that looks like is really important, not just for our state but for the whole system."
Njord, who has previously testified before Congress as chairman of AASHTO's environmental committee, likely will be back in front of Congress more than once in coming months. And AASHTO executives say they have full confidence in him.
"He has always been a very active person in AASHTO, very easy to work with," AASHTO spokeswoman Jennifer Gavin said of Njord. "He's a real gentleman, very personally liked by people in this organization, as was Tom Warne."
Prior to Warne, a Utahn had not served as president of the organization since the mid-1930s.
The presidency is rotated every year among AASHTO's four regions. And since Warne was elected president the last time it was the Western region's turn to pick, it seemed unlikely Njord would have the same opportunity.
The chief of the Alaska Department of Transportation was originally picked for the 2003-2004 presidency and was serving as vice president when his governor made a cabinet change. The vice presidency then fell to Nevada's transportation chief, who later retired.
When the DOT chiefs of the western region met April 1 to select a new vice president who would eventually serve as 2003-2004 president Njord was elected by secret ballot.
While circumstances played a part in Njord's ascension, observers point out Njord already has accomplished a great deal on the local and national level. He served as UDOT's director of transportation planning with the Salt Lake Organizing Committee, then became deputy director of the department for one year before taking over for Warne in May, 2001.
"It's no accident that I chose him as the deputy director," Warne said of Njord. "He was a star in terms of the work he did with the Olympics."
Warne said Njord's selection is due to his personal achievements and the fact that Utah is highly regarded in transportation circles.
"With I-15, design-build, the traffic management center and the other things we're doing those things, really, a lot of states only think about doing," said Warne, who now travels the country as a private consultant on transportation projects. "Utah is very much on the map in terms of being seen by other states as a leader in advancing transportation concepts and ideas."
With UDOT since 1988, Njord has filled the roles of chief engineer, engineer for urban planning, local government liaison and construction field engineer.
He has a civil engineering degree from the University of Utah. He is a registered professional engineer and a member of the American Society of Civil engineers.
Njord already has a three-point platform he intends to pursue as AASHTO president. The federal funding re-authorization leads the list.
"Both the House and Senate have considered this particular issue and neither one have settled on what they're going to" propose, Njord said. "Both of them have considered the funding level and that's really the biggest discussion."
Secondly, Njord hopes to optimize the nation's transportation system, pushing an agenda for making the current system both smarter and safer. By smarter, Njord says, he hopes to advance the use of technology in traffic management, improving what is known as intelligent transportation variable-message signs, speed sensors, traffic cameras, etc.
He plans to approach the automobile industry with hopes of creating a partnership to ensure both transportation professionals and carmakers are on the same page when it comes to utilizing technology to everyone's advantage.
An example is GM's OnStar system, which electronically connects vehicles to a 24-hour service center. Njord would like to see a scenario in which, eventually, the OnStar system or something like it automatically contacts local dispatchers when a car becomes disabled.
"I can see a time where a technology like OnStar allows you to immediately communicate to vehicles that there's something you need to be aware of up ahead maybe a voice, a heads-up display or a message crosses your dashboard," Njord said. "The possibilities are pretty exciting."
Third, Njord intends to promote a climate for environmental leadership within state transportation departments.
Njord's election also means Utah will host AASHTO's spring meeting, its second-largest convention of the year. The meeting is tentatively set for May in St. George.
E-MAIL: [email protected]