A keen eye on local traffic issues

Local woman is DelDOT’s chief engineer

When Shanté Hastings hits traffic at home in Long Neck and Millsboro, she is not just thinking about the problem. As the Delaware Department of Transportation’s new chief engineer, she — and her staff — are thinking about a solution.

Practically everyone who lives in or drives through Delaware is impacted by Hastings’ job in some way. The chief engineer oversees all of DelDOT’s capital projects: any project that improves transportation or innovation that improves quality of life for people using the system.

“I think it’s easy to forget how important transportation is to all of us, whether you own a car or not,” Hastings said from her Dover office. “All the goods you buy get there via transportation. It’s really an important part of everyone’s lives.”

She said she is proud of her colleagues’ “positive contributions getting people to work, to school, to doctor’s appointments, playdates.”

Since assuming her new role in July, Hastings reports directly to the head of DelDOT, Secretary Jennifer Cohan. She has two deputies, one in design and one in operations/support. That includes many pieces of the puzzle: the construction group, materials and research labs, the Traffic Management Control center, inspections, land acquisition, design, environmental studies, coordination with railroads utility company and much more.

“Why does it take so long? Well, there’s a lot of steps,” Hastings said. “Transportation is critical to our daily lives, our economy. The department wants to be a good steward of the dollars we receive. The process feels slow to the public, but state employees really try to consider all public input on a project, follow the rules and make the best possible decision.

“Our staff is awesome. They work really hard,” she said.

She also runs the Division of Transportation Solutions and its 450 employees dedicated to the operation and improvement of transportation infrastructure. The division strives to provide mobility options, improve safety, reduce congestion and minimize the environmental impact of projects.

“There are some things you cannot build out of. … So what technology can we use to help make run things more efficiently?”

For instance, widening Coastal Highway would impact commercial properties. So instead of widening the highway, DelDOT could work to time the traffic signals more efficiently or push people toward transit alternatives, such as the Lewes and Rehoboth Beach park-and-ride locations and the DART bus system.

“That’s why you see us building sidewalks and bike paths and widening shoulders, so that people can ride bikes in them,” Hastings said, and “building bus stops so that people have a safe place to get on and off. … That’s all part of what we do … looking at the full picture and not just looking at it from a car perspective.”

She encouraged people to get involved. Only a fraction of the public attends DelDOT public meetings about proposed projects.

“Show up to give your opinion, whether you’re for or against something,” Hastings said. “It’s really important to understand, and for us to hear, all of those opinions and perspectives. … Hearing from people does impact the way that we design projects, at the end of the day.”

Meetings are soon to be scheduled for the Routes 113/24 bypass. Design of the project has begun, and construction could start in 2022.

“I’ve asked the team look for ways to streamline and condense the schedule, so we’re working on that to see what we can do. I drive through Millsboro often…” She laughed. “And the congestion is hard. I feel the pain of the people.”

But her team still has to follow rules of acquisition, offering fair prices to property owners and allowing them to negotiate.

“But we’re trying to streamline as much as we can in this area, that we have the flexibility to do,” Hastings said. “It’s coming! We’re working as hard as we can to deliver it. … We understand the daily congestion that’s occurring.”

The DelDOT project website is www.deldot.gov/information/projects.

 

Bringing solutions to the people

 

Hastings said she always loved science and was encouraged toward engineering by her great-grandfather, an electrical engineer. Admittedly, she sometimes questioned her major. But after a DelDOT internship and junior-year transportation management class, “I had found my niche.”

She would eventually earn her professional engineering license. In 2013, the Delaware Engineering Society named her Young Engineer of the Year, in recognition of her hard work and community service.

Hastings earned a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from University of Delaware in 2000. Originally from New Jersey, she followed her college sweetheart, Jason — now her husband — back to his home in Sussex County. Now, they live in Long Neck with their daughters, Lilly and Maya.

“I think I’ve grown a ton,” said Hastings, adding that she loves working at DelDOT. “My career has taken many twists and turns,” but excellent mentors have encouraged her to try new things outside of her comfort zone, she said.

She has worked from New Castle County to Georgetown, even doing conceptual work for the Routes 26 and 113 corridor projects.

“I’ve gotten to do a variety of things. I have a good understanding of how the department runs, who the key people are to get things done, and have just seen a lot of growth throughout the state in terms of transportation, which is pretty neat,” she said.

“Shanté has excelled in every role she has held with DelDOT for nearly 20 years, and I am so happy that she will serve in this critical role for the department going forward,” said Cohan.

Hastings succeeded Rob McCleary, who retired after more than 30 years of service to the State.

In her time at DelDOT, Hastings has worked directly and indirectly on a lot of projects. She has been a project manager, assistant maintenance engineer, chief of performance management and deputy director of transportation solutions.

Until this summer, Hastings was director of policy and performance, which is all the internal work that helps DelDOT operate more smoothly. For instance, the new Project Pipeline helps staff to keep the public abreast of projects, from the first complaints about an intersection to the design or even construction schedule.

“We also wanted a way for community members to say, ‘I drive through this intersection every day and you need to do X,’” she explained.

For regular project information, people should call DelDOT Community Relations at (302) 760-2080 or visit http://www.deldot.gov/information/projects.

To report road problems (such as excessive queuing, damaged signs or malfunctioning traffic signals), people should call the 24-hour Traffic Management Center (TMC) hotline at (302) 659-4600 (or dial #77 on Delaware cell phones).

 

The future of transportation

 

But, overall, when driving around, Hastings said, she thinks Delaware is doing well.

“We are doing a lot of great things. Our pavement in general is in way better shape than a lot of other places that I drive around,” she said.

“Whether it’s making things safer, less congestion, providing more options or better options to people — that’s what we are all about,” Hastings said. “Being able to see that in action is really great, and having been part of it for 19 years is really cool.”

She also keeps an eye on national policy issues and the Federal Highway Administration.

So, what’s coming in the future of Delaware transportation?

At the federal level, she said, there is talk of connecting different modes of transportation across state lines, which could mean using a single mobile app to buy a train ticket, taxi ride and bike rental. DelDOT has a committee to investigate how Delaware’s transportation system will handle automated/driverless cars using public roads. Meanwhile, the Route 95 Corridor Coalition is also using volunteers to test a per-mile toll system across state lines.

 

‘If you care about something…’

 

Under Cohan’s leadership, roughly half of DelDOT’s directors are women.

“I think she’s picking the best candidate who interviews, and in a lot of those cases, it’s happened to be women, which is really cool,” Hastings said.

When Hastings studied engineering, about 25 percent of her classmates were women, which was an unusually large number. Hastings admitted it was an atypical experience, but it was nice, she said.

Throughout her career, often as the only woman in the room, “It is what it is, and you get used to it, and you don’t really think about it too much.”

But that’s why she participates in events such as the 2018 “Go Red for Women” conference in Dover, where she called for more encouragement of young girls to study STEM topics, “just to make sure girls know what women can do anything,” Hastings said. “For some young ladies, it just takes being able to see somebody that might look like you, to say, ‘I can do that, too.’”

Hastings is also making an impact during her free time.

“I feel passionately about the fact that if you care about something, you should be willing to give of your time and your talent … to make it successful,” Hastings said.

“In addition to her talent and skills, her character and compassion exemplify what we aspire to be as a state agency that impacts the lives of hundreds of thousands of residents and visitors every day,” said Cohan.

Hastings said she loves to mentor colleagues at DelDOT’s Leadership Academy. She has been president of several University of Delaware alumni boards; a Delaware State Fair board member; and chapter advisor for the Sigma Kappa college sorority.

After all that, she enjoys volunteering with her kids’ school and singing in the Grace United Methodist Church praise band.

 

By Laura Walter

Staff Reporter