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New Iowa transportation director has vision of a safer, more efficient system

Down the road, Scott Marler sees a role for driverless cars

Scott Marler, who recently was appointed director of the Iowa Department of Transportation, presented his vision for the
Scott Marler, who recently was appointed director of the Iowa Department of Transportation, presented his vision for the agency and the state transportation system in meetings with members of the Legislature this past week. (James Q. Lynch/Gazette Des Moines Bureau)

DES MOINES — Scott Marler has an ambitious vision for transportation in Iowa.

It’s a vision of snow and ice being cleared more quickly from the state’s 115 million miles of public roads, fewer fatalities, shorter wait times for driver’s license renewal and, yes, driverless vehicles.

“I can’t tell you exactly when it’s going to happen, but what I can tell you for sure is this will be a progression,” the newly appointed director of the state Department of Transportation said about autonomous vehicles taking over Iowa roads. “It’s not like tomorrow we’re suddenly going to stop driving vehicles and they’ll start driving themselves. There will just be a progression as the technology unfolds.”

Progression is key to Marler’s vision for the Department of Transportation, where he has worked for 22 years under four governors and five directors. He didn’t hesitate when Gov. Kim Reynolds asked him to head the department, which has a proposed fiscal 2021 budget of nearly $394 million.

“I’m a public servant by calling. I feel like this was why I was put on this Earth,” Marler said in appearances before the Senate Transportation Committee and the House-Senate Transportation, Infrastructure and Capitals Appropriations Subcommittee.

Former director Mark Lowe resigned in December at Reynolds’ request. In an email announcing Lowe’s departure, spokesman Pat Garrett said Reynolds “decided to seek a change in leadership as she continues to build her administration.”

Stuart Anderson, director of the department’s Planning, Programming and Modal Division, served as interim DOT director until Feb. 17, when Marler was appointed.

Marler is an Iowa transplant

Originally from Mississippi, Marler graduated from the University of Southern Mississippi, earned a master’s at Miami of Ohio and came to Iowa “because I followed a girl.”

“I may be a transplant, but this is home,” said Marler, 48, who lives in Ankeny and has three children.

New director’s vision for the future

Iowa’s transportation system is under tremendous demand, Marler said. Last year, 33.3 billion vehicle miles traveled were logged by motorists making a quick trip to the grocery store, going to and from work, and moving Iowa’s corn, beans, hogs and other agricultural commodities to market.

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Marler has a vision for keeping the system running smoothly and, he hopes, better. It’s based on four interrelated pillars — safety, operations, efficiencies and technology.

Last year, there were 58,000 vehicle crashes and 336 fatalities on Iowa roads.

“That’s 336 too many,” he said. “We’ve got to change those dynamics so safety is at the top priority.”

Improving operations, including clearing snow and ice from roads more quickly and clearing lanes when there are crashes, would contribute to safety.

Given the demands on the system, Marler said, “We’ve got to stretch our dollars as far as we can as smartly as we can.”

He wants to tap into technology

And lastly, he embraces emerging technology.

“We must look toward the future of transportation,” he said. “This safety idea I mentioned, well, research has shown that the potential exists of these automated vehicles to dramatically improve safety, much more than any other thing we’ve been able to do so far.”

His embrace of technology doesn’t stop there. Marler thinks technology can improve electronic registration and titling and, possibly, shorten the wait times at driver’s license stations.

“This is something that we’ve already been researching how to improve that,” he said. “We know a lot of our customers, frankly, they wonder sometimes why they’re waiting in our stations. ... Maybe there are some technology solutions we can deploy that will help that and help move them more efficiently through the system.”

Recent work enhanced safety

Autonomous vehicles and other technology aside, the DOT’s mission includes keeping the current system running. Marler told legislators he’s proud of the $3.5 billion investment the state has made in its five-year transportation plan. Of that, $2 billion was spent on modernization and enhanced safety features, Marler said, and 55 percent was invested in rural Iowa.

““We’ve been able to reduce, for example, what we call poor-condition bridges on the state system from 256 bridges roughly a decade ago, down to 39 bridges today,” he said.

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“This is a significant advancement for our state,” Marler said. “It’s so important that we keep our transportation system in a state of good repair because that’s how we move our products to market. And we also want to keep people safe. And that’s really what our story ultimately is about — keeping people safe and really keeping the traffic moving.

“That’s why we do what we do. The better we can do that, the better it is for the customers and citizens of our state.”

Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

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