Seasoned Vet Takes the Wheel as Transportation Lead at Burns & McDonnell.
By Richard Massey
Mike DeBacker sees the future of transportation from many different angles. Technology will certainly play a role in the ongoing challenge of moving goods and people from Point A to Point B: Electric vehicles, autonomous vehicles, micro-mobility, and the associated network of smart infrastructure and devices. But DeBacker also sees a more traditional factor – funding – playing a role. A waning federal gas tax, gridlock in Washington, and a crumbling web of roads and bridges, are creating the perfect storm in which decision makers and asset owners will increasingly look to the state and local levels for answers, and will consider alternative forms of financing and project delivery to get their improvements underway. And DeBacker, as the new general manager of the Transportation Global Practice at Burns & McDonnell, will no doubt be part of the unfolding story.
A 30-year veteran of transportation, DeBacker assumed his new position in July, when former general manager Ben Biller retired. Backed by a powerful, 7,000-person firm with a robust culture fueled by employee ownership, DeBacker said he and his team are well equipped to compete and succeed. Here are his thoughts on where we are, where we are going, and how we are going to get there.
Civil + Structural Engineer: You have nearly 30 years of experience in transportation policy, planning and design. What is the critical challenge ahead for this country as it faces deficiencies in transportation infrastructure across the board – land, air and water?
Mike DeBacker: First, I want to say how fortunate I feel to have spent my entire career focused on transportation – one of the biggest drivers of the economy.
There is no question our main challenge is the fact that we are nearing or even past the original design life of most of the surface transportation infrastructure built during the Interstate era. The vast majority now requires replacement or major rehab.
We could have met the maintenance demand for this system if the federal fuel tax levels had been indexed for inflation. But they were not, and the last federal fuel tax increase was in 1993, putting the rate at 18.4 cents per gallon. Since that time, buying power is now about 50 percent of what it was then. We are living in a perfect storm in which government-mandated standards for increased fuel economy are resulting in lower fuel tax revenue. This, combined with a lack of indexing for the fuel tax, is leaving us further and further behind. And now, with electric vehicles on the way, it is obvious we need to look at new ways to fund surface transportation infrastructure.
How this occurs will probably look different in each state and region, depending on how citizens view transportation. Some may fund the improvements with increased fuel taxes; others, with tolling or sales taxes. Transportation development districts also are coming, and some states are turning to general revenue allocations. It’s interesting that most of the momentum is occurring at the state and local levels.
C+S: Trends in transportation are certainly following the arc of technology. In your new role, how are you going to incorporate technology as you partner with clients and policymakers?
MD: Technology will allow us to travel smarter – with both smarter vehicles and smarter transit resulting from efficiencies in signal timing, station stops, etc. We also will have better technology in our hands for smarter routing and shorter travel times, which can relieve congestion and provide more modal choices and integrated choices for transport. Infrastructure is also getting smarter, but technology in our vehicles, in our transit systems, and in our hands will lead the way at this time.
C+S: In terms of policy, what does the federal government need to do to help firms like yours fix the problems plaguing the transportation grid?
MD: Surface transportation is just one of the many challenges and competing interests that policymakers must deal with, and things have become extremely partisan. This is new because infrastructure policy previously has not been particularly partisan. Unfortunately, we are in a hyper-partisan environment right now.
Our policymakers must find the political courage to fund transportation infrastructure or change the model so that it functions more as a public/network utility. This starts with the reality that we will need to play some catch-up and also acknowledge that the fuel tax is ultimately a declining revenue source. We must look at other user-based options, liking tolling – more of a network utility model moving forward.
Again, we are in a perfect storm with the existing infrastructure that served us well for decades. Back in the early 2000s, it began reaching the end of its life, and now we have deteriorating highways and bridges along with a fuel tax that hasn’t changed at the federal level since 1993. Those factors are combined with federal government mandates for higher fuel economy, which is wonderful in a lot of ways because vehicles are more economical and less-polluting, but it all creates an urgent need for solutions.
So, what we need is some real political courage. In the short term, we need to index fuel taxes. And in the long term we need a new model, such as a user fee model where you pay for what you use. What is interesting is that due to challenges at the federal level, we will see new appropriations at the regional and state levels. Local elected officials and chambers of commerce have come to the conclusion that they must expect less. So, we are looking to solve our transportation problems locally and at the state level. The challenge with that, of course, is the Interstate system was set up as a network, and without a larger look this will be done piecemeal. There will be funding at those levels long before we see it at the federal level. Even with a new authorization, we still have to have the money, and new revenue will need to be addressed.
C+S: What are a few things you’d like achieve in the next five to 10 years?
MD: One priority is to continue a leadership role in good policy development and to support our clients with our knowledge and experience. We can learn from other industries where Burns & McDonnell plays a leadership role, such as energy and electric transmission and distribution. The public or network utility model is not perfect, but it does provide a level of equity for users, or customers, of transportation to pay for what they use. This is similar to the utility model we use for energy, water, telecommunications, etc., where we pay monthly for what we use, along with some level of fixed payment for being connected to the network.
C+S: You assumed your current role after the retirement of Ben Biller. What did you learn from him, and what’s the importance of having a management succession plan?
MD: Ben continued in a very active leadership role until he left
in early July. We have a lot of momentum right now, both as a firm and as a division, and Ben is stepping away with everything in a good spot.
There are a lot of things I’ve learned from Ben, but maybe the most important is to always be consistent in client service. Ask clients what is important. Survey them regularly and make adjustments to bring more value. Ben also has a strong operations capability and taught me a lot about the importance of discipline in project management and expectations for meeting budgets and schedules.
C+S: Since being at Burns & McDonnell, what’s the most challenging project you’ve ever managed and why? What was the lesson learned?
MD: We have many great projects in the portfolio. The ones that stand out are often those with many stakeholders, which means there are different interests that have to be addressed. The projects with the greatest challenges also carry the greatest opportunities. One that stands out is the planning and environmental linkages study, or PEL study, in downtown Kansas City. It brought those opportunities because of its regional impact, involving multiple cities, two states, and many stakeholders. It is a model in which we learned many key lessons about never overlooking any detail when it comes to communications with multiple stakeholders.
It is hard to narrow any particular big milestone project at Burns & McDonnell. There are several big projects that we have been privileged to be a part of. We made a decision several years ago to get into EPC (engineer-procure-construct) and design-build in an intentional and larger way. Now, three years into that strategy, we are really beginning to see the fruits of that labor with project wins and significantly better value for our transportation clients as we take on the entire project under one contract for one owner.
A nice hometown project again is the PEL study, which we called Beyond the Loop, where we did a first-of-its-kind look at the I-70 Loop through downtown Kansas City. It surfaced a wide spectrum of alternatives, from keeping the status quo to completely closing the interstate in downtown and pushing traffic to parallel interstates and repurposing that area for development in the future. This is truly a long-term horizon, looking at years 2030 and 2040 as scenarios. What is interesting is that for the first time in a study I’ve been involved with, we looked at autonomous vehicles, EVs and connected vehicles because we believe those will be quite prevalent then.
C+S: Kansas City is a great American city. You’re part of the Big 5 transportation initiative with the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce. Tell us about giving back to the community where you live.
MD: As co-champion of the Big 5 transportation initiative, I am honored to be in a role that can make a difference. This is an effort with the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce to develop future transportation strategies for the region. It was established in 2011 under our former chairman and CEO, Greg Graves, while he served as chairman of the chamber. The goal of the Big 5 is to focus on critical areas of need in our community – from education to transportation – that can help make Kansas City one of America’s best places to work, live, start a business and grow a business.
It’s been enjoyable to work with my co-champion and the KC Chamber leadership to engage the business community in transportation because we need it and use it every day. One primary initiative is workforce access – connecting people in the central city to job corridors across the metro area. We have some pilot projects under consideration, including looking at how the region can better support transportation investment. We have a strong recent history of supporting transportation ballots for transportation safety, such as education and advocacy on eliminating distracted driving. The community also strongly supports bike and pedestrian corridors and scooter safety. We are working with our delegation of elected leaders and the business community to advocate in those areas.
I have had other leadership roles in the industry, including serving as chairman of the American Council of Engineering Companies for Missouri, participating in the leadership academy of the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association and serving in several roles with chambers of commerce and nonprofit organizations.
At Burns & McDonnell, we believe we have an obligation to give back to the communities where we live and work. This goes far beyond serving on committees and boards. It involves corporate and personal giving and volunteer efforts for dozens of organizations across North America.
C+S: Before joining Burns & McDonnell, you were at HNTB for over 16 years. It was your first job out of college. How did your career there prepare you for Burns & McDonnell?
MD: HNTB is a great firm, and I learned a lot during my time there. I gained a good technical background as a young engineer and opportunities for project management on various projects emerged pretty quickly. Young engineers right out of school need to work to build a solid technical knowledge, and I was able to do that there. I was also able to work in several areas of the country, which broadened my perspective in transportation.
Along the way, you decide if you want to continue on a technical track or management. I decided on management, then got my MBA, and it was really a timely degree with what I was doing at HNTB.
C+S: You were recently named general manager of the Transportation Group at Burns & McDonnell. You have been with the firm for nearly 12 years, which means this was a classic example of being promoted from within. What kinds of opportunities exist at a firm like Burns & McDonnell, which is known as a great place to work?
MD: There are truly boundless opportunities at Burns & McDonnell. Our employee ownership culture is real and drives us in many ways. It’s the special sauce that motivates us to make our clients successful. We are entrepreneurial, diverse and can do planning, design and construction. That’s unique in our industry. It’s a special place, and we know it and protect it.
At the industry level, our diversity of business helps us see things across industries. For example, our Transmission & Distribution Group is working on projects that involve building out the electric distribution system in preparation for the wave of EVs that will soon be part of the transportation fleet. Our T&D professionals are working closely with utility clients on battery storage and other trends that have implications for surface transportation. So, we find ourselves working across our entire business to bring owners a lot more value. At Burns & McDonnell, we are 10-dimensional, not just two-dimensional or three-dimensional.
C+S: Personal: spouse, children, hobbies, travel, pets, food, books, music, etc.
MD: I enjoy spending my free time with family – my wife, Darla, and four children: Amy, Josh, Ellie, and Matthew. We enjoy going to games, hiking, skiing, fishing and being on or around the water together. I also spend a lot time on baseball fields and basketball and volleyball courts with the kids’ sports.
Richard Massey is managing editor of Zweig Group publications. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.