by Bob Grawey
When Hassan resident Bernie Arseneau began his career at the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) 28 years ago, he had no engineering experience and worked his first two weeks without a paycheck.
Now he is the agency’s deputy commissioner and chief engineer, second in command only to MnDOT Commissioner Tom Sorel.
Fresh out of the University of Minnesota with just an engineering degree in hand, Arseneau began calling MnDOT human resources for a job, making that daily call for two months.
Since the new grad had worked his way through college, he had never gained the engineering experience he needed.
Arseneau’s opportunity finally came after two months, though, when he was told by human resources that they had a job for him if he was willing to work without pay.
It was his only chance to land his dream job, so he said he would do it.
After two weeks on the job, Arseneau was handed paperwork for an official interview.
“I said, ‘I thought I couldn’t get an interview because I didn’t have experience.’ She (human resources staffer) said, ‘Yesterday you didn’t. Now you do.’”
Arseneau eventually got paid for his “experience” and landed a permanent job with MnDOT. He has been moving up in the agency ever since.
His first position was checking and reviewing plans in MnDOT’s state aid offices. Arseneau also worked in the maintenance division; was office director in the state traffic engineer offices; was director for the policy, safety and strategic planning initiatives division; directed traffic safety and technologies; and served as the agency’s legislative liaison.
His experience includes material road research at the MnRoad office along I- 94 in Otsego, as well as in charge of offices for civil rights, policies, analysis, research and innovations.
Going from his previous position as a divisional director to deputy commissioner and chief MnDOT engineer gives Arseneau even more responsibility over a much larger scope.
Now, one of the Hassan resident’s most important roles is helping the MnDOT commissioner accomplish the agency’s vision that encompasses eight regions in Minnesota.
Many times people’s thoughts of MnDOT are about traffic and road construction projects, snow plowing or pot holes that beg for yet another “fix.”
Though these are some of the most obvious functions of MnDOT, the agency also oversees rail transportation like light rail transit, bus transportation including special needs transports, trails for bikers and hikers and even water transportation.
Arseneau refers to MnDOT’s vision of being a:
“Global leader in transportation, committed to upholding public needs and collaboration with internal and external partners to create a safe, efficient and sustainable transportation system for the future.”
That vision includes looking at aging infrastructure, environmental impacts from transportation-related projects, maintaining balanced diversity within MnDOT, innovating changes to improve mobility, and being fiscally responsible.
Arseneau says one of the most important aspects of his position is making Minnesota roads safer.
He refers to MnDOT’s Toward Zero Death initiative. Arseneau played a key role to help launch the initiative, which involves engineering, education, emergency services and law enforcement.
Together, leaders in these four areas are finding solutions to reduce highway fatalities.
“More than a number, these are people we’re losing and we have to make our roads safer,” Arseneau says. “We’ve been real effective and taken this initiative further than anyone else has.”
He adds that things like the cable median barriers on I-94 and Highway 10, rumble strips on the shoulders of roads and sign enhancements have reduced highway deaths in the state.
In 2003 the number of deaths on Minnesota roads was 600 and climbing, according to Arseneau. That has dropped to 411 in 2010 due to MnDOT’s safety measures.
These numbers have brought MnDOT into the national spotlight, too.
The agency serves as a national model for transportation organizations and agencies replicating the Toward Zero Death initiative.
Other MnDOT operations rate high nationally, too, such as how quickly the agency responds to snow and ice storms.
A recent 8-inch snowstorm that crippled Washington, D.C. would leave Minnesotans going about in a fairly normal fashion, Arseneau says, because MnDOT is so quick to respond.
He says MnDOT wants to know how transportation impacts the quality of life for people in the state.
Safety is the highest priority for a citizen’s quality of life, he adds. Right behind that is mobility.
Congestion in the Twin Cities metro gets major attention, but Arseneau says MnDOT also strongly considers mobility issues in greater Minnesota.
“How does rural Minnesota get to the hospital or the supermarket? One of the things MnDOT considers is transportation systems in greater Minnesota,” Arseneau explains.
Transparency is another important part of Arseneau’s many duties: to make sure the public and the State Legislature have accountability for how MnDOT appropriates funding and projects that best fit the overall needs of a region in the state.
“We’re looking at a more performance-based way of doing things,” Arseneau says, “instead of just doing something because the book says that’s the way it should be done. That means being innovative and creative.”
It also means giving attention to all eight districts in the state to make sure every region’s transportation needs are getting equal consideration.
Every road construction project request is evaluated by a number of factors, including whether a project is shovel ready and how much effort, as well as local funding, is in place prior to the request.
The Rogers 101 flyover happened quickly, he says, because city officials did a lot of work to secure funding and backing from Minnesota politicians, and in providing local money for the project.
Those same reasons are what caused the Highway 101 project through Otsego to move up on MnDOT’s project list and to get completed so quickly.
As Arseneau acts as the chief operating officer for MnDOT, he will see much more of the Minnesota Legislature, and those trips to Washington, D.C. will likely increase.
Another role Arseneau fills is to help make every MnDOT employee an ambassador for pushing forward the agency’s vision and mission.
He views his role as one that continues to make MnDOT a global leader in the way it serves the citizens of Minnesota, to give them a greater quality of life through the agency’s transportation initiatives.