Sitting among the papers on Butch Eley’s office desk is a tobacco peg. It’s the peg his tobacco farmer grandfather used to plant seedlings with when he was a child, growing up in a small farming community on the outskirts of Nashville, Tennessee.
And he pulls it out whenever he needs reminding of the importance of teamwork and working in partnership.
“When it came time to harvest the tobacco, there was sometimes too much for one family to do themselves,” he tells The CEO Magazine.
“So everybody would move from one farm to the other, and all the people in the community would come together and get tobacco cut out of the field and into the barn in order for it to cure.”
It was an early lesson in the value of community, working beyond what you can do yourself and working together to produce more in the end.
Eley knew from a young age that tobacco farming wasn’t for him, but the learnings from that environment stuck with him as he completed business studies at college and took his first steps in government roles.
They followed him when he segued into the corporate world to found and head up a highway asset maintenance services company, Infrastructure Corporation of America (now known as HDR|ICA), where he spent 20 years building the business from the ground up to become a national entity with close to 1,000 employees.
The governor is a businessman, I’m a businessman and the influence of business on how we run government is essential.
And they remain ever present in his return to government as the Deputy Governor and Commissioner of Transportation for Tennessee.
“I use this peg as a symbol,” he says. “It has been very important as I think about what we’ve done with the state of Tennessee and where we’re headed in the next generation as it relates to transportation.”
Make life better
A longtime family friend of Tennessee Governor Bill Lee, Eley recalls the exact campaign pledge that made him want to join Lee’s team: Make life better.
“His whole campaign for governor was around how he could make life better for all seven million Tennesseans, not only those in the urban cities but also those in rural areas,” Eley recalls.
When Lee took office in 2019, Eley was by his side as State of Tennessee COO. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he moved into the CFO seat to shore up the budget. Then, as Lee began to contemplate a second term, his focus fell on infrastructure – more specifically, transportation.
“The Governor understands how transportation relates to economic development and asked me if I would be interested in overseeing that,” he explains.
Given Eley’s background, it was an easy yes. The decision was made even easier considering Tennessee’s existing transportation footprint.
Memphis International Airport is the largest freight airport in North America. And while the claim that every single FedEx package goes through Memphis is a bit of an urban legend according to the company, as a superhub, the FedEx’s Memphis facility handles up to 1.4 million packages daily.
The state is not just a magnet for cargo: affordable housing, lower taxes, an attractive climate and quality of life are some of the reasons why people – 83,000 of them in 2022, according to data released by the U.S. Census Bureau – are flocking to call Tennessee home.
“People love the countryside, they love our cities,” he says.
But with unprecedented growth comes challenges, especially the need to stay one step ahead in terms of transportation infrastructure.
“We’ve got to plan for the future to make sure that we have the ability for those people to get to their jobs,” Eley says.
A new balance
Strategically, that plan is called the Transportation Modernization Act, legislation that was signed by Lee in April. The plan provisions for the investment of an additional US$3.3 billion to meet transportation needs across rural and urban communities and address traffic congestion.
What was key to the bipartisan legislative support the bill received was that the strategy could be executed without new taxes or debt as, for the first time in Tennessee’s history, it is opening toll lanes in the form of choice lanes – or pay-to-use lanes – on highways that enable drivers to avoid traffic.
“This is a fundamental change to allow the private sector to finance, build, operate and maintain these facilities around the state,” he explains.
“That will allow us to use those dollars that are being supplied by private funding, in this case user fees, to fix urban congestion, and then go out and expand many of our rural interstates throughout the rest of Tennessee with state dollars.”
Another way the Act is generating funds is by redressing a gasoline-based revenue model that Eley describes as unsustainable.
This is a fundamental change to allow the private sector to finance, build, operate and maintain these facilities around the state.
The state has embraced battery-operated cars and is one of the biggest in the south in terms of electric vehicle adoption, Eley says.
That’s only set to swell when Ford opens a new plant at BlueOval City, just outside of Memphis, in the fall of 2025, which will be dedicated entirely to the production of the F-series electric pickup. The plant, Ford has said, will have the capacity to build up to 500,000 vehicles a year and employ up to 6,000 people.
Eley understands the significance of Ford’s decision to base the production of this next-generation pickup in Tennessee.
“It’s a huge step forward for them, and they could certainly have chosen any city in the United States, if not any city in the world. But they chose West Tennessee,” he says.
For Eley, providing for the state’s smaller, rural communities is particularly close to his heart.
“We have many rural areas that are not growing as fast, so the Transportation Modernization Act is also about ensuring that we have the ability for people to live, work, play and stay in the communities that they grew up in, as opposed to moving to the big city,” he explains.
The business of government
Partnering with business comes naturally for Eley.
“The governor is a businessman, I’m a businessman and the influence of business on how we run government is essential,” he explains. “We need to constantly strive to make sure that every taxpayer dollar that is being spent is spent wisely, and that means using business principles to accomplish that.”
The Transportation Modernization Act has allowed for a shake-up in how the Tennessee Department of Transportation undertakes its projects, and it has looked to the private sector for inspiration.
“Part of our new legislation, and part of where we are headed as a department, is to really change our delivery model,” he says.
Whereas previously the organization worked in silos, it is now adopting an integrated delivery model. “It’s a team approach,” he explains. “People begin with the end in mind.”
With a new emphasis on communication and collaboration, Eley can already foresee significant improvements in delivery times and costs.
“We’re able to streamline the process and build in half the timeframe,” he says, noting that government projects take about 15 years to deliver from inception to opening. “We’re trying to cut that in half.”
We need to constantly strive to make sure that every taxpayer dollar that is being spent is spent wisely, and that means using business principles to accomplish that.
Eley knows that such a shift is driven by having the right people in the right places. “It’s about the right people, the right delivery model and the right funding mechanisms,” he says.
“Those are the three legs of the stool that we have been working on, and continue to focus our attention on, to be able to deliver better transportation.”
But he also appreciates that it takes strong external partnerships to achieve such a vision as well.
“We cannot deliver the entire chain ourselves,” he says. “We have to rely on our partners to be able to take advantage of their technology and expertise.”
These partnerships may take the form of alliances with private enterprises such as Wright Brothers, a Tennessee commercial-grade construction company, or be with other departments of transportation (DOT) to share knowledge and best practices.
A vital connection
Eley finds particular reward in a role that makes a difference in people’s lives, especially in his home state.
“Transportation really is one of the few things that we do that influences or impacts every single person in the state every day,” he says. “It’s a vital connection to how people stay connected and access health care and education.”
As Tennessee positions itself for the future, we’re in the process of creating, curating and delivering a world-class transportation system.
And his commitment to making life better for Tennessee’s citizens, whether deeply rooted or newly arrived in the state, is perpetual.
“As Tennessee positions itself for the future, we’re in the process of creating, curating and delivering a world-class transportation system without raising additional taxes and creating new debt in the process,” he says.
“We’re on the cusp of being able to figure out, for a business like the State of Tennessee and the Tennessee Department of Transportation, how to achieve what has to be accomplished for transportation in Tennessee now and for future generations in a very business-like, innovative way.”
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