Meet the Secretary
Appointee Brings Fresh Perspective to the DOTD
A seasoned veteran in the Department of Transportation but not so set in his ways as to be considered a “lifer,” Dr. Shawn Wilson looks to shake things up with a focus on new funding and developing a multimodal infrastructure.
When Dr. Shawn Wilson took stock of his academic career, what he saw was a clear path toward administrative leadership. This foundation – his education – would later develop into a deep-rooted commitment to public service, one that would guide his decisions moving forward.
In an earlier draft, the current Secretary of the Department of Transportation was slated to become a nurse. Though his academic career began in the health sciences, Dr. Wilson later transitioned to Urban and Regional Planning at University of Louisiana where he earned a B.A. He then went on to earn both his Master of Public Administration and a Ph.D. in Public Policy and Urban Affairs from Southern University.
After ten consecutive years at DOTD, Gov. John Bel Edwards appointed Dr. Wilson to his current role as Secretary of the Department of Transportation on January 11, 2016. If you asked Dr. Wilson when he started at the department, the current secretary would not put himself in this role. But, “as a non-engineer,” it turns out that his fresh perspective is just what the backlogged department needs. “I’ve always been on the core decision making team…it gives me an historical perspective without being a lifer and allows me to shape policy and policy positions.”
One of Dr. Wilson’s major projects was to secure federal FASTlane dollars for a major widening of I-10 from I-49 to New Orleans and the Baton Rouge I-10 bottleneck. “Timing is everything. We have to start moving in that direction because the cost of not doing it is much greater than doing it.” This refers to many of the delays in freight movement along the I-10 corridor and the Pontchartrain Expressway.
“I saw a huge need and opportunity for someone who was not an engineer, who was not a product of the civil service system to bring a perspective to decision making so that we can make decisions outside of ourselves and not in a vacuum,” he says.
He honors that by continuing his commitment to the human aspect. As an urban planner, he worked with citizens to build a successful habitat. “Ten years with government plus transportation brought clarity around a focus,” he says. “The consistency of transportation and development really brought me back home. Philosophically, you can’t have infrastructure without planning.”
Dr. Wilson is a constant advocate for new revenue and advancing a balanced and comprehensive transportation policy for Louisiana. The Port Priority Program serves as an opportunity to create value and jobs through the State’s investment in the 32 ports around Louisiana. “This administration has doubled its funding,” he says. “Thirty-eight million dollars that doesn’t go that far…we are looking forward to doing more to increase that program.”
“It has been thirty years and we are way behind 47 other states in terms of how progressive our system is. We need to work with federal partners because inter-state commerce requires federal government support for funding. At the state level, we can’t do today for 16 cents what we did 30 years ago for that amount. Today, the value of that 16 cents is about seven cents.”
The future looks positive under the direction of Wilson. “We need to be more strategic in our program,” he says. “We need to be aware of where we are competing and asking, ‘Are we competing against ourselves here?’”
Part of the problem, he explains, is that many people are still operating as though the department is still the now-retired umbrella title of “Department of Highways and Bridges.” Before his appointment, only a small amount of resources were being deployed to promote multimodal transportation inclusive of transit, port, rail and aviation.
“Infrastructure and economic opportunity has to do with connectivity and mobility. If we have great bridges and great roads but no way to connect to containers, no way to connect to freight, we failed. Time is money and you’ve got to look at the entire line of business,” he says. “As a state, we need to work to address a corridor and a line of business as opposed to a destination.”
- Andrea Blumenstein