Bright builds on TDOT legacy of safety, quality

TML Communications Specialist

In January 2019, H. Clay Bright III made the jump from the private sector into government when he was appointed commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) by Gov. Bill Lee.
The 30th commissioner of TDOT, Bright’s new role has him overseeing the state’s entire transportation system including highways, railroads, airports, waterways, and mass transit.
The position comes after Bright spent nearly 36 years working at one of the largest construction firms in the nation: Brasfield & Gorrie. After earning his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from the University of Alabama, Bright took a job at the firm headquartered in his hometown of Birmingham, Ala., in 1983.
He soon began working on projects that brought him into Tennessee and in 1998, opened the firm’s Nashville-based office. He spent the next 20 years at the helm of the Nashville team, eventually overseeing the completion of more than $3 billion worth of construction and a team of 200 employees.
The firm has built several iconic local landmarks, including several corporate headquarters, condo towers, hotels, and the public square outside the Metro Courthouse.
However, its most famous project is probably the AT&T Tower, known locally as “the Batman Building” for its unique appearance. In fact, the building has become such an iconic Nashville landmark that it even appeared on Tennessee license plates along with images of the Memphis Pyramid, Knoxville Sunsphere, and the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga.
Over the past year, Bright has made the adjustment to heading one of the largest state agencies that has an average yearly budget of around $2.4 billion. Some of that funding is coming from the state’s new IMPROVE Act, passed in 2017. The goal of the Act is to put more money in the coffers for road construction. The Act also allows for local referendums to fund transit projects.
When he’s not overseeing TDOT, Bright is an active member of Nashville’s business community and sits on several boards and commissions. In his free time, he also enjoys running marathons, golfing, hunting, and fishing. He and his wife Kim have two sons.

TT&C: What made you want to focus on engineering/construction as a career? Is there a project you have been a part of in the past that has been your favorite?
Clay Bright: I grew up in Birmingham. As a senior in high school before I went to college, I got a job with a general contractor called Brasfield & Gorrie. I worked for them that first summer out of high school working on the construction sites. From that, I realized I loved building. I loved seeing things go up and what we did every day. That just stayed with me my whole career until I transitioned to TDOT earlier this year.
I came to Tennessee initially to open up the office for Brasfield & Gorrie. I had already worked here on several projects before opening the Nashville office. So I’ve been working in Nashville for about 30 years. The project that really means the most to me is the one my kids like the best, which is the Bellsouth Building now known as the AT&T Tower. It’s better known as the Batman Building.

TT&C: How has the transition been from private sector to government? What are the similarities between the two and what are the major differences?
CB: It has been a smooth transition. They spoon-feed me information so I don’t get overloaded. I have a great group of people that I’m working with. There are a lot of similarities between what I was doing before and working here at TDOT. The people in the office at Brasfield & Gorrie are great people, and the people I am working with here are great people. At Brasfield & Gorrie, people both in the office and the field loved what they did and took it to heart. I see that across the state with the people who work for TDOT. They love what they do, and they love working for the state of Tennessee. It’s pretty humbling to see that.

TT&C: What do you think are the biggest challenges TDOT faces and how are those being tackled?
CB: I would say the main challenge is funding. We have the projects lined up before the IMPROVE Act and other projects are starting to filter in since the passage of the IMPROVE Act. As far as the list of solutions out there we need to work on, we are in good shape. It just all comes down to funding and paying for projects.

TT&C: What results are we beginning to see from the IMPROVE Act?
CB: We are putting that funding to good use already. Of the 962 projects, 588 were bridges across the state, and we are making a major impact on those bridge projects. A lot of those bridges were not on roads TDOT is responsible for but they are roads and bridges everybody uses. There are a lot of bridges that school buses and just normal equipment couldn’t even get across. Making transportation accessible and easier is important. People shouldn’t have to go around bridges they can’t get across. Of course, we do have 962 projects and a limited budget. It is going to take a while to work through those projects.

TT&C: Federal funding has always been an important component of funding new road projects and repairing existing infrastructure in the state. What do you see coming down the pipeline from the federal government in the future? Do you think the state will have to consider finding alternative funding sources than the federal government for road projects?
CB: The challenge other than state funding is the federal funding and having a sustained, long-term package from them that we can plan around. We don’t expect them to bump up the amounts any, but I don’t think it’s going to go down either. The packages they keep presenting out there on infrastructure are bringing additional funds to the table, but the plans that bring additional funds versus figuring out how in the world you’re going to pay for it are two different things. I think that is where the stumbling blocks are going to come.
At some point, we need to take responsibility for ourselves. I don’t think we are going to get a long-term plan. There may be continuing resolutions from year-to-year, and that’s not what we need. We need a long-term plan.

TT&C: What do you see as the state’s biggest infrastructure needs? How does TDOT prioritize road repairs and new construction?
CB: A lot of people say the most important road is the one in front of their house. All of the maintenance dollars that we use each year come out of the state. They aren’t federally funded. Something that is extremely important to Gov. Lee is asset management, taking care of the assets we have and not letting them get into deferred maintenance. The dollars we get each year first go to asset management as far as roads and bridges. What is left over goes to new projects.
We also look at projects through several filters, like it is a safety project or an economic development project that is going to help an area economically. We also look at if it’s a congestion project. There continue to be rankings from across the country about how you take care of your assets, roadways, quality of asphalt, and quality of roads, bridges, and infrastructure. We are consistently in the top five as far as how we take care of our roads and bridges. To be a pay-as-you-go state and to be consistently ranked in the top five I think is pretty strong.

TT&C: How does TDOT work with local officials to expedite projects more efficiently and cost effectively?
CB: I think about that two different ways. I think of local officials being our county mayors and city mayors. We have planning organizations across the state like our Metro Planning Organizations and Rural Planning Organizations who work with those mayors across the state. From there, we get our pipeline of projects. It comes from that grassroots delivery of projects they need to use. We also do long-range planning and develop engineered solutions to take care of those issues. That is how we are working with local officials on what they need.
On the flipside, we work with our agency partners like TDEC on the environmental side and the Federal Highway Administration (FHA). We work with them through that process of going through environmental and federal rules to get these projects delivered as soon as possible.

TT&C: What do you see as the future of mass transit and alternative transport in Tennessee? What alternatives to traditional highway infrastructure are being considered?
CB: We really have to look at all the different modes of transportation we have now. I hate to refer to the scooter craze but there are so many new ways for people to get around today. Even with transit systems, we have to ask if bus rapid transit is a way to move more people around quicker, and if we should expand those services and operations. People are talking about autonomous vehicles and what those might do for us. We are looking at everything, both in terms of the tools that are out there and the funds for those projects. We are also looking into the alternative funding streams.

TT&C: How is TDOT working to meet the transportation needs created by the state’s rapidly growing population?
CB: We have more drivers and more freight on our roads. The use and capacity of those roads is going to increase. Folks in the transportation industry often use the phrase “you can’t pave yourself out of congestion.” What our state needs is more capacity in the state and through the state. We’ve got to figure out different ways to do it, and that’s not just through paving. It may be through technology, additional transit options, and multi-modal projects. We really have to look at everything to meet that increased capacity need.

TT&C: What are your priorities for roadway safety both in terms of motorists and TDOT employees?
CB: We have a certain safety culture within the state. Beginning a year or two ago, we started to supply personal protective equipment to our employees across the state. It’s a uniform they all have that looks the same. Internally, that was a step in the right direction in terms of the safety culture within TDOT and raising awareness.
Whenever I’m talking internally, I talk a lot to our people about safety, thinking about what they are doing every day, and what they can do to stay safe. It’s an awareness you have to talk about everyday whether it’s the guys working in the work zones or the help trucks on the side of the highways moving people off the shoulder. We also have the internal “Work For Us” campaign, which asks our employees who they are working for everyday whether it’s a family member or a friend. We want them to go home every night with all their fingers and all their toes.
We also have a program out there for educating the public. We started a program in 2016 after we had three fatalities with TDOT employees. We developed a program called “Work with Us.” It’s a way to raise awareness, especially in our work zones or when people are pulled over on the side of the road. It’s for the general public to know to look out for our people. Unfortunately, our workers in our safety trucks have a mindset “it’s not if I’m going to get hit but when I’m going to get hit.” That’s a tough mindset to have on your job.
We also work a lot with the Tennessee Highway Patrol and how they can help us with enforcement. We have a very good relationship with them. When they are responding to work projects or accidents, we have our HELP trucks there also to protect them while they are doing their job. We are also a data-driven organization. We keep up with all the accidents across the state, and as we see certain areas having a heightened rate of accidents or fatalities, we try to figure it out from an engineering point of view of what that highway needs to make it safer.

TT&C: How is modern technology changing the way we build and operate roadways? In what ways is TDOT incorporating new technology into how it operates?
CB: The Interstate 24 Smart Corridor we are working on between Murfreesboro and Nashville is in Phase One. I think that is a really good example and a test case of us using technology to try to increase capacity on our existing roadways. It comes in at a lot less dollar value. That is one of our first projects we’re working on now, and we will continue to work on that. We are also installing dedicated short-range communications (DSRC) cameras and technology. I think we are going to learn a lot from that corridor.
We are also going to have a lot more electronic message boards across the roadways. We are trying to do things like tell people how fast they need to drive. A lot of times in traffic, you go fast and then you stop and then you go fast and stop again. If we can tell someone they need to go 42 miles per hour in this particular lane and the flow will go easier, we can learn from that and use it in other corridors across the state.
There is a group called the Tennessee Smart Board, also known as TennSMART that we are part of along with a lot of private businesses, auto manufacturers and also people in Oak Ridge, the Arnold Airforce Base in Tullahoma, and the University of Tennessee. You have academics, researchers, public and private entities coming together talking with businesses in the automotive sector to understand what they have coming up and how we need to plan ahead.
Sometimes it’s as simple as talking to these companies about their autonomous vehicles that can read the roadways. The solution could be as simple as going from a four-inch-wide stripe to a six-inch stripe that a camera or car radar can pick up. There is also a lot of conversation about the country going to 5G and what that means for these car companies and technology. We are trying to stay ahead of that technology and see where that is going to go.