When most people see a major storm coming they cringe or run and hide. But Kevin Bush is not most people.
“The thing I get the most satisfaction out of is emergency response,” says the 54-year-old regional director of the state Department of Transportation. “Whenever there’s a natural disaster going on, everybody else is told to stay home, but we come out and play.”
As Region 4 director in Rochester, Bush oversees the local operations, which encompass 628 employees in seven counties. The region has some 280 staffers dedicated to snow and ice removal.
“Whether it’s snow or a hurricane, whatever the case may be, we’re here to keep it safe. People don’t realize our role in that,” Bush says. “That’s what keeps me coming back.”
Bush is responsible for an annual capital program budget of $100 million to $110 million, which is a combination of federal and state funds. Some 65 percent of those funds are used for state projects, primarily in the construction area, while the balance is used for county, city, town and village projects.
Additionally, the region’s operations unit, which is responsible for maintenance and equipment, has an annual budget of roughly $10 million.
Locally, Bush and his team have to keep 4,700 miles of roads functioning year-round and inspect 1,760 bridges, including more than 100 over the canal system in the area.
“We have roughly 67 percent of all the canal bridges in the state,” Bush notes. “We have a very high number of old, historic bridges. So they’re giving us some grief.”
The DOT got its start in 1909 as the New York State Department of Highways. In 1923 it was renamed the Department of Public Works and received its current moniker in 1967. The DOT manages the state’s complex transportation system and coordinates modes, including highways, rail, aviation, transit and ports.
The DOT must ensure that its customers—those who live, work and travel in New York—have a safe, efficient, balanced and environmentally sound transportation system, Bush says.
“People don’t realize everything we do,” Bush says. “We’re a lot more than potholes.”
Bush arrived fresh out of college at the DOT’s Poughkeepsie facility in 1983. He worked in construction and was with the facility seven years. He passed up a few promotions, patiently awaiting an opening in one of the upstate locations, where he had grown up.
“My first job, I worked on a farm. I baled hay,” Bush recalls. “I grew up in a rural community and that’s where I got my work ethic. If you don’t work, you don’t get invited back the next day.”
In 1990, Bush was offered a promotion in the Buffalo office. He spent a couple of years there in the traffic group and was then offered the opportunity to move to the Rochester region in 1992 as a maintenance manager in Wyoming County.
He stayed in maintenance nearly six years before being named regional maintenance engineer in 1997. In 2006, he became the regional design engineer and oversaw the design floor at the region’s Henrietta headquarters. He was named regional director last March.
“I moved around,” Bush says. “That was one of the good things for me. I’ve been part of many groups.”
The Rochester region is one of 11 across the state. The office consists of an executive/employee safety/communications office, administration office, planning office, design group, right-of-way office, operations and construction group. Additionally, Region 4 has eight maintenance residency facilities, a bridge maintenance shop, a fleet administration shop and a regional traffic operations center.
The planning department handles funding of road and bridge projects, while the design group develops the projects that will be constructed. Right-of-way manages the state-owned property along the roads, while operations is responsible for how the highway system operates safely.
Safety is more than inspecting bridges or filling potholes, Bush asserts. It can include preventative maintenance, special permits, pavement markings, signs, traffic lights, speed limits, work zone traffic control plans and much more.
“We also have cameras, especially around the urban area, that are our eyes and ears as to how traffic is flowing and what’s happening,” he adds.
From a long-term perspective, Bush says over the next few years the region has to come up with a canal bridge program and plan.
“They need a lot of help and we have to strategize on where we’re going to make those key investments,” he says.
The DOT was hit hard by the recent recession, Bush says. From 2008 to 2013 it implemented a hiring freeze in which the only new hires were to keep up with plowing.
“We had a full five years where we lost people through attrition and couldn’t hire anybody,” Bush says. “We got to a point where we only had one or two employees under 30 years old in our engineering side.”
Prior to the hiring freeze Region 4 had more than 800 employees, Bush says.
“We continued to lose people so we continued to do more with less. That was a struggle,” he says. “People were dedicated, and they gave a lot of themselves for a long time. But it’s a testament to our staff that they did that.”
Bush says the biggest challenge he has seen with the organization is the lack of a stable funding stream.
“We don’t have a federal bill at this point, so having stable funding through the federal government would be helpful,” he says.
Roderic Sechrist, DOT’s assistant commissioner for operations and asset management in Albany, says another challenge the organization faces is an aging workforce.
“That’s always a challenge to retain your crew, your highly skilled staff,” Sechrist says. “We do have a large number of employees, like Kevin and I, who were hired in the early ’80s that are going to be eligible for retirement in the next five years. That’s a challenge.”
But Bush says what makes him want to pull his hair out is inattentive drivers.
“We can engineer the safest road or bridge or system in the world but if somebody’s not paying attention it doesn’t mean a thing,” Bush explains. “That’s probably the hardest one to deal with because you can’t control it.”
With so many departments and staffers working closely together, performing as a team is critical to the region’s success, Bush says.
“One of the things that makes this region unique and good is teamwork. And that starts at the top and it filters down through all the different functional groups,” he explains.
Ensuring that type of teamwork continues is a short-term goal he has for the region.
Regional construction engineer Robert Traver agrees the region is successful in part because individuals work so well together.
“Not only within DOT but also our partners: the Genesee Transportation Council, the local county highway superintendents, the local public works departments,” Traver says. “We all basically have the same goal in mind of providing a topnotch transportation system.”
Sechrist agrees, noting the leadership and teamwork exhibited by Region 4 are what the division does right.
“I think the senior managers in Region 4 work well with each other,” Sechrist says. “Even though they may have different areas of responsibility, they seem to come together and make the right decisions for the region.”
Teamwork may be one of the reasons the local facility is successful, but Bush describes his leadership style as not hands on.
“It’s common for people who work with me to hear me say it’s a technical detail I don’t need to be involved in. That’s what you’re here for, figure it out,” he says. “And I trust staff to do the job unless they give me a reason not to. We let them go do their jobs.”
Traver says Bush has an open-door policy and is willing to talk to anybody about anything.
“He welcomes discussion. He’s definitely a team player, easy going and friendly,” Traver says. “You know you can talk to him. He’s approachable.”
Bush has a collaborative management style, Sechrist says.
“That’s the way he approaches things,” he adds. “I would describe Kevin as quiet but direct. He clearly articulates his expectations and he holds people accountable when they fail to deliver on those expectations.”
Bush says his communication skills and the fact that he has worked in numerous departments within the organization are two of his strengths. But sometimes he can be too trusting, he says.
“It has bitten me, but I’ll always err on that side first,” Bush says.
What keeps the job fun for Traver are the challenges the region faces as well as the feeling of accomplishment that comes with seeing a job come to fruition.
“You never know what you’re going to face,” Traver says. “It’s also nice to see stuff when it hits the street, so to speak. Some projects take many, many years to develop from conception to completion.”
Similarly, Bush says making sure the road stays open is the best part of his job.
“I want the ambulance to get that heart attack victim to the hospital. I want the milk hauler to get that load to processing. The fire truck’s got to get over the bridge,” Bush explains. “So being able to provide that service is awesome.”
The region’s biggest accomplishment in recent years, Bush says, is the diverging diamond traffic pattern at Route 590 and Winton Road. A diverging diamond interchange is a type of diamond interchange in which the two directions of traffic on the non-highway road cross to the opposite side on both sides of the bridge at the freeway.
In other words, Bush says, you are asking people to drive on the wrong side of the road briefly. It was the first such project in the state.
“It was an innovative project that probably saved us close to $7 million,” Bush says, adding that the project also has made the intersection safer. “There were 45 different conflict points in that interchange. With the diverging diamond there’s only 23.”
Bush has had several positive influences in his life, including his blue-collar parents, his mother-in-law—who is a DOT retiree—and former DOT regional director Charles Moynihan.
“He was probably the person that got the teamwork really rolling well and forced us as group directors to play in the sandbox nicely together,” Bush says.
When Bush is asked to talk to schools about engineering, he tries to leave them with this advice: “Engineering is awesome. It’s a great field, but your communication and leadership skills will determine how far you go in an organization.”
Off the job
Bush was raised in Tully, Onondaga County. He and his wife, Regina, live in Farmington, Ontario County. The couple have a 21-year-old daughter, Laurie, and a 19-year-old son, Randy.
The Bush family camped a lot when the children were younger, he says, but some of his favorite memories are of swimming in the pool, where Bush’s son became quite talented at an early age. He is pursuing music in college now, Bush says.
Bush spent years coaching his daughter’s softball teams and he enjoys golfing, fishing and exercising. He also spends a lot of time bicycling.
He keeps longtime friend and pastor of Farmington United Methodist Church, Jeff Long, on his toes.
“He’s a swimmer, weight lifter and long-distance bicycle rider. Especially in the last two years he’s been really serious about all those things,” Long says. “He tries to keep me accountable. He terribly outshines me. He sets a high standard that way.”
Despite his love of sports, his family is of utmost importance to Bush, Long adds.
“His family means a lot to him,” Long says. “Kevin’s a people person. He is warm, engaging. There is not a self-serving bone in Kevin’s body. He wants to do right by people.”
Position: Region Four Regional Director, New York State Department of Transportation
Family: Wife, Regina; daughter, Laurie, 21; and son, Randy, 19
Education: B.S., civil engineering, SUNY Buffalo, 1983
Interests: Family, skiing, golf, swimming, bicycling
Quote: “I want the ambulance to get that heart attack victim to the hospital. I want the milk hauler to get that load to processing. The fire truck’s got to get over the bridge. So being able to provide that service is awesome.”
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