The man in charge of carrying out Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s most famous campaign promise to “fix the damn roads” is Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) Director Paul Ajegba.
In an exclusive interview, the Michigan Advance sat down with Ajegba this month and talked to him about his background, how Michigan got into its infrastructure crisis and what he thinks we can do about it.
And as Republicans in the Legislature have expressed skepticism about efficiency in his department, Ajegba discussed how he plans to increase transparency.
This is another part of the Advance’s new video series, “Inside Michigan Government,” interviewing key state department directors and taking you behind the scenes of your government and how decisions are made.
3 decades at MDOT
Ajegba grew up in Lagos, Nigeria.
He came to the United States when he was 19 to attend Prairie View A&M University in Texas, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering. Following graduation, Ajegba was hired by a small engineering firm in Detroit.
Ajegba initially worked on a design project for the Detroit Wastewater Treatment Plant. Toward the end of that project, he decided to enroll in graduate school at the University of Michigan. During a career fair, Ajegba gave his resume to MDOT representatives and was hired into the the department’s Engineering Development Program in 1990.
The 24-month development program allowed Ajegba to rotate through planning, design, maintenance and construction. Ajegba’s 28-year career at MDOT, as well as his work in promoting diversity in the field of engineering, has earned him the first Lifetime Achievement award from the Society of Black Engineers.
“It was a humbling experience to be getting such an award,” Ajegba said.
“About six, seven years ago we started this program called MDOT HBCU [Historically Black Colleges and Universities] Program,” he said. “We recruit students from historically Black colleges and partner with schools here in Michigan.”
The program initially began with only four students, but will have about 20 participants in various universities around the Lower Peninsula during the 2019 summer program.
“I think it helps expose those students to what MDOT does, with the hope that when they graduate, they will want to come back to MDOT to work,” Ajegba said.
“We bring them into Michigan, they stay on campus and we provide them with a job. Then the university sees if they can recruit them to transfer or come to graduate school.”
Fixing the roads
No other state department has been under the microscope as much as MDOT, since Whitmer has made fixing infrastructure her signature issue.
“You work to make a difference in whatever field you’re in,” Ajegba said. “Being appointed by the governor is a great, great opportunity for me.
“It’s also a challenge, because at this point, we are at a crossroad, where we are either going to invest in our infrastructure or stay with the status quo. I think that me having an almost 29-year career in the department has allowed me to contribute to those conversations.”
Whitmer’s fiscal year 2020 budget raises an additional $2.5 billion annually by gradually raising the gas tax 45 cents over the course of a year, starting on Oct. 1.
According to Ajegba, arriving at the point where an additional $2.5 billion dollars will be needed to repair Michigan’s infrastructure didn’t happen overnight and is not the responsibility of any single individual.
“How we got here is 40 years of disinvestment [in infrastructure],” he said. “But the question is: How we are going to dig our way out of this hole that we’ve dug ourselves?
“At some point, we did not make the right decision to spend [enough] and we’ve had a lot of roadways fall into that poor category, and that’s why it’s going to cost us this much money to get us out of it.”
Ajegba quoted research showing that maintaining a road in fair to good condition will cost six to 14 times less than repairing that same road once it has fallen into poor condition.
“I really give the governor a lot of credit; when we met with her during this budget preparation, she asked, ‘What is it going to take for us to fix this problem?’” he said.
He said Whitmer’s response was, “If this is what it’s going to take to fix the problem, then that’s what we’re going to do.”
“That, to me, is bold leadership,” Ajegba said. “That is where we are — we are trying to educate the public on how we’re going to solve this problem now.”
Ajegba has previously stated that the four points of focus for MDOT moving forward will be improving innovation, transparency, efficiency and strengthening partnerships with motorists, contractors, universities and other stakeholders.
Republican leaders have rejected Whitmer’s gas tax, but have not put out a plan of their own yet. Some GOP legislators also have been critical of MDOT, arguing that there are either excess funds or that money can be used more effectively.
To provide more transparency, Ajegba wants to create a website to provide details on every MDOT project. The site will show the stage of each project, the expected timeframe for completion and whether the project is on budget.
“It will have a list of every project in the state, from inception to conclusion,” he said. “By the time we get to the completion of the project, anybody can see where we are in the process.”