ALITTLE MORE than three years ago, "VEE-DOT" -- the Virginia Department of Transportation -- was a colossal, out-of-control mess. It had been stripped of able professional staffers and was incapable of delivering projects on time or on budget. It ignored maintenance while pretending to address an unrealistic wish list of construction projects. Fudged figures, failing computers and sloppy planning permeated the department, which oversees the third largest state-maintained highway system in the nation. VDOT was so bad that even James S. Gilmore III (R), who as governor contributed to turning the department into a bumbling behemoth, wound up railing against it while the disintegration continued on his watch. When Mark R. Warner (D) took office in 2002, he tapped an exceptional pro to shake up VDOT: Philip A. Shucet, an engineering firm executive who turned the department around. Now Mr. Shucet is resigning to go back to the private sector.
Mr. Shucet's accomplishments and his nonpartisan, upfront approach have impressed Republicans as well as Democrats, road builders as well as environmental advocates. His summation last week was characteristically on point: he considered it time to go because he had done what he signed up to do. As reported by The Post's Steven Ginsberg, Mr. Shucet noted that "a strong team is in place, the six-year program has been restored to fiscal integrity, and VDOT's on-time, on-budget improvements speak for themselves."
They do. With a smaller but abler workforce and with solid managers, the agency that used to promise projects it could not afford has improved its score. When Mr. Shucet stepped in, four of every five projects were behind schedule and half were over budget. Mr. Shucet promptly canceled nearly a third of the state's projects for lack of funds. The latest reports showed that the agency finished three of four construction projects on time, while completing four of five on budget. Mr. Shucet also has made VDOT more accountable through the Internet-based "Project Dashboard" (http://dashboard.Virginiadot.org), which allows the public to check directly on the agency's construction performance.
Strong stewardship will be needed to keep VDOT from regressing, but Mr. Shucet has shown what can be done. He's also taken from the politicians a convenient excuse for not providing the road-building funds Virginia needs. VDOT is up to the job; whether the same can be said for the state's political class is less clear.