The Efficient Road Makers

Mark Bortle and the Iowa Department of Transportation are finding 21st-century solutions to staffing challenges

In 2012, the Iowa DOT used automated programs and worked with independent contractors to finish roughly $600 million of roadwork. Here, workers perform a 34-day reconstruction of Interstate 680 after the Missouri River flooding in summer 2011 caused extensive damage to the roadway. (Photo: Keven E. Arrowsmith)

At a Glance

Ames, IA



Public transportation infrastructure

At the end of 2012, the Iowa Department of Transportation (Iowa DOT) managed a total of 114,780.76 miles of road running across the Hawkeye State. The organization’s highway division—its largest division—works hard to keep all that pavement safe and smooth, but with public funding only so easy to come by, maintaining an adequate staff has been a challenge in and of itself. Because of this, traffic safety engineer Mark Bortle and other Iowa DOT veterans are increasingly turning to automated systems.

The Iowa DOT’s infrastructural construction work and maintenance is directly tied to road-use tax funding, which can fluctuate with the economy. So, to ensure continued service, the organization does what it can to streamline and tighten its processes. “We keep a nominal workforce on board from design through inspection,” Bortle says, “and if we have peaking in proposed work volume, we will turn to private consultants.” Most recently, in 2012, the organization completed roughly $600 million of roadwork, performed by Iowa contractors.

Bortle says the department is smaller now than when he started, and with workloads increasing as staff dwindles, automation has been a valuable aide in expediting administrative functions, including inspection tools and bidding. “Once a month, we have a bid letting, and all of our work is done through a low-bid process,” Bortle says. “This invites private contractors to do work on our system, and they do their bidding online [via BidExpress].”

Since 1904, the Iowa DOT—originally called the Iowa State Highway Commission and formed as an extension of Iowa State College—has been responsible for the expressways and byways crisscrossing the state’s farmland. In 1913 the commission became a state entity, and in 1974 it was folded into Iowa DOT.

The organization is now powered by roughly 2,800 state employees and headquartered in Ames, a short drive north of the state capital, Des Moines. Bortle’s office is there. “I tell people, ‘When you’re seeing the orange signs and orange and white devices along the highway, you can think of me,’” he says.

With a civil engineering degree from Iowa State University, Bortle followed his father’s footsteps into the public sector. “I initially worked under a licensed county engineer in Jones County in eastern Iowa,” he says. “In most states, you’re required to work under a licensed engineer for up to four years prior to taking the professional engineering examination.” After passing the exam in 1983, Bortle went on to work with the Iowa DOT, eventually finding a place in the department’s central construction office (now known as the office of construction and materials), where he has been since 1988.

Iowa DOT has an administrative structure similar to most other state DOTs. At the core of the department is the transportation commission, the decision-making body comprising seven governor-nominated, state senate-confirmed members who serve four-year terms. A director then administers the decisions made by the commission, overseeing Iowa DOT’s six divisions (highway; planning, programming, and modal; information technology; operations and finance; performance and technology; and motor vehicle), which serve the state’s six districts.

Iowa DOT has 13 resident construction engineer offices, which act as the direct administrators of the contracts awarded in the state’s six districts. Bortle’s office, in the highway division, oversees the entire road-construction process. It might not seem glamorous, but Bortle takes satisfaction in his position’s influence.

“The pay for public work might not be as good as it is in the private sector,” he says, “but this job makes me feel rewarded, knowing that I’m doing a good job helping keep the public safe.” ABQ

The Iowa DOT comprises approximately 2,800 state employees, spread among  six distinct divisions. Here, workers pave US 30 near Ames during a 2011 reconstruction project. (Photo: Keven E. Arrowsmith)
The Iowa DOT comprises approximately 2,800 state employees, spread among
six distinct divisions. Here, workers pave US 30 near Ames during a 2011 reconstruction project. (Photo: Keven E. Arrowsmith)