DOT Director’s on the Move

Posted March 18, 2005 at 2:49pm

Few people would describe the 1967 proceedings of the Public Works subcommittee on highways as “a real page turner.”

Fewer still could ever call it their bedtime reading.

But such is the world of Dan Tangherlini, the director of the District Department of Transportation. As the man responsible for the planning, construction and maintenance of 1,100 miles of D.C. roadways, 241 bridges and some 1,600 signalized traffic intersections, it would be accurate to say that Tangherlini eats, sleeps and breathes transportation issues.

“I can’t go out for dinner with people without getting questions,” he said. “People always apologize, they say, ‘I’m really sorry but I have to ask you this.’ But if I didn’t want that to happen or if I weren’t comfortable with it, I wouldn’t do this job.”

And as of last week, five years after D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams (D) asked Tangherlini to turn around a transportation department that “was really kind of coming apart,” the affable city transportation chief who can usually get a laugh from even the most disgruntled resident at a community meeting is adding a few more transit issues to his plate.

Tangherlini was sworn in as the new Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority alternate director representing the mayor’s office at last Thursday’s Board of Director’s meeting, giving the transportation veteran a chance to take his street knowledge to the tunnels and bus routes of the area’s Metro system.

Transit in Transition

“I personally believe that Metro is in a transition,” Tangherlini said. “I get to bring with me the experiences of going from an agency that has had a lot of turmoil and had a really focused reform effort, and I hope as Metro hits some turbulence in their flight we can contribute some of our experiences, some of the mistakes we’ve made and some of the things we’ve done well.”

Tangherlini, who rides the Metro daily from his home on Capitol Hill to his office on U Street Northwest, replaced Calvin Nophlin, a former senior policy and program manager at the Education Department, on the Metro board. Nophlin began serving on the board in 1999. According to Metro, terms of service for board members vary depending on the office they are appointed by.

“Dan’s a very strong proponent of public transportation and he’s an excellent addition to the board,” said Sharon Gang, spokeswoman for Williams. “He has turned the [DOT] around, from our streets to our public transportation needs to countdown pedestrian signals that make it safer to walk the sidewalks. He has been instrumental in making it easier to travel in and out and around the city.”

Tangherlini said that stepping into his new post on the Metro board is important because it will re-establish a crucial link that once existed between two of the region’s main transportation agencies.

The District’s transportation director had held a seat on the Metro board until 1986, when a decision was made to roll the DOT into the Department of Public Works. With an overwhelming workload facing the new DPW director, the seat was given up.

“We think it’s really important that we have that joint leadership role on the transit side as well as on the road side so that we can strike a balance between the two,” Tangherlini said.

But taking a seat on the board will also put Tangherlini — a former chief financial officer of the Metropolitan Police Department, program analyst in the office of the U.S. Transportation secretary and one-time seasonal laborer for the Massachusetts Department of Public Works — in somewhat unfamiliar territory.

“It’s going to be an interesting experience for me to actually be on a panel where you have to work for and trade votes,” he said. “I’ve never had to do that. I’ve always been an agency director or agency staffer and this is kind of a political board, if you will … it’s a little nerve-wracking.”

But that’s not to say that managing the transportation needs of a city that just a decade ago was deep in a financial crisis hasn’t taught Tangherlini a thing or two about finding ways to get things done in Washington, the most political of cities.

Turning Transportation Around

When Williams first appointed him to serve as acting director of the division of transportation in the Department of Public Works in May 2000, Tangherlini said he found himself at the head of an organization that had $600 million in unspent federal aid obligations, only 40 people left in street maintenance and not even a single traffic cone to call its own. Maintenance workers were wearing dark blue uniforms without safety vests, “and as I looked around I was stunned at the complete divestiture that had taken place probably over the interceding 14 or 15 years.”

It took two years for Tangherlini to untangle the mess and pull 19 loosely affiliated offices together into five core programs and once again create a separate Department of Transportation.

“I think we’re on the tail end of the major organizational shifts, but we’re neck deep in the heart of the organizational transformation of rebuilding culture, rebuilding the basic operating procedures and systems,” he said. “There’s so much more to be done.”

Today the revamped Department of Transportation oversees a traffic load that is second only to New York and tied with Chicago’s Loop for the sheer number of cars that come in and out of its urban core on a daily basis — something in the area of 750,000 automobiles — and D.C. has the second highest walk-to- work ratio of any major metropolitan area after Boston.

Not only that, but attending to the transit needs of the seat of the nation’s capital also presents a number of other special challenges.

“One of the most interesting parts of my job is that there are at least 535 additional mayors in the form of Senators and Congresspeople who will call my office,” he said.

And that’s not to mention the unique security concerns that Tangherlini faces from a host of anxious federal and local agencies who often want to set up check points or close roadways with little or no warning.

“I see my job as to be an advocate for mobility, access and, if I’m really on my high horse, freedom, freedom of movement,” he said. “And the mayor supports me 100 percent on that.”

In, Out and Around

As he steps into his new position representing the mayor’s office on the Metro Board, Tangherlini has been charged with a number of tasks, including providing guidance for the next era of regional commuting on which Metro will soon embark.

“The mayor wants Dan to make sure to focus on the needs of the riders and particularly those who ride the bus,” Gang said. “He also wants Dan to work with Metro to develop new programs and services like the Anacostia light rail, the downtown circulator and the K Street busway.”

In a statement from WMATA last Thursday, Gladys Mack, vice chairwoman of Metro’s Board of Directors, said one of Tangherlini’s main jobs on the board will be to “work to promote additional service … as well as completion of the D.C. Transit Alternatives Analysis on providing new bus and rail service in the District.”

Developing and implementing these new transit alternatives is a challenge Tangherlini says he’s eager to take on.

Holding up the familiar Metrorail service route map, he said, “If we are committed to meeting the mayor’s goal of 100,000 new residents, then this subway map doesn’t work for us.”

He explained that the major transportation philosophy for development in Washington for the past half century has been based on two directions, in and out. “What we need to do, and what I think our job is in this next epoch of national capital transportation planning, is to focus on ‘around.’ … That’s a primary responsibility for me as the city’s transportation director is to make sure that we haven’t focused so much on regional mobility that we’ve lost local quality of life.”

So, for example, as he contemplates the implications of how the new Washington Nationals baseball stadium on the Anacostia waterfront will affect rush hour traffic, Tangherlini is also considering the safety of pedestrian routes that local children use to walk to school.

Tangherlini says staying active in the community keeps him sensitive to local needs; the transit chief is a member of the Capitol Hill Restoration Society, the Stanton Park Neighborhood Association and St. Joseph’s parish, and he’s even been an assistant coach for one of his daughters’ softball teams.

“I think it’s important for us to be active in the community so we can actually catch things before they become issues,” Tangherlini said.

“He’s very accessible and sympathetic and takes seriously what we have to say,” said Rob Nevitt, president of the Capitol Hill Restoration Society. “He lives up here, he believes in what we do, and when we raise transportation issues he listens to us.”

And if Tangherlini ever needs some extra advice on transit concerns, it’s always pretty easy to find.

“I see him every weekend because he walks his dog at Congressional Cemetery where I walk my dog,” Nevitt said. “So we have a lot of casual contact … but I try not to abuse that accessibility.”

For Tangherlini, that’s part of the job.

“It’s always on,” Tangherlini said. “But that’s OK, because these are ‘always on’ issues.”