AUGUSTA – David Bernhardt was born in Sumter, S.C., but he’d like a free pass from any idea that he’s “from away.”

For one, he loves Maine.

“I like the rural nature,” Bernhardt said. “It’s the people. They’re just honest, sometimes wicked honest.”

For another, his parents are both natives — his mother from Vassalboro, his father from Waterville. They only left the state because his father enlisted in the Air Force. His father’s career dictated that the family never settled in one place for long, so Bernhardt spent time in Japan, Nebraska, Michigan and Texas before graduating from Waterville High School in 1978.

That nomadic upbringing helped shape Bernhardt’s career path.

“I’ve driven through 42 different states, and as a kid, seeing the transportation infrastructure fascinated me because driving through during the ’60s and ’70s was when a lot of things were being built,” he said. “It was something as a kid that always stuck with me.”

Praised for his pragmatism and frugality, Bernhardt is a 26-year veteran of the Maine Department of Transportation — where he’s spent his entire professional career.

Now, he’s Gov. Paul LePage’s choice to lead the department. His confirmation hearing is scheduled for Tuesday.

Bernhardt, the third child of five, was a self-described “middle of the pack and above” student who earned his associate’s and bachelor’s degrees in civil engineering at the University of Maine.

He graduated in May 1984 and began work with the state that June, beginning the career that has traversed several areas of expertise within the department and has garnered him bipartisan praise for his pragmatic approach to problem-solving.

Bernhardt sees his long tenure at DOT as an asset.

“If you want to make change, positive change, you’ve got to know how things work,” said Bernhardt, who is 50. “I was given that opportunity to do that; things fell into place.”

LePage has said he picked Bernhardt largely for his ability to stretch a nickel into a dollar — a necessity for the leader of an agency facing a more than $700 million shortfall over the next two-year budget cycle, according to state analysts.

Bernhardt’s innovations in recent years have already helped the department save millions. His projects included modernizing roadway de-icing routes and re-classifying the DOT work force, making it more flexible.

About 10 years ago, Bernhardt said, the de-icing process changed from being soil-based to salt-based, which meant that trucks needed to travel the same route less frequently. Bernhardt said that when he was named in 2005 to direct the Bureau of Maintenance and Operation, he decided to re-evaluate the status quo.

“We went through and I looked at everything and we were able to modify the truck routes and eliminate multiple amounts of trucks, so that was huge cost savings to the state,” he said.

Less than a year ago, Bernhardt also led an effort to streamline seven specialty job classifications to three, which gave the department more flexibility in how to assign almost 900 employees.

“Basically you had highway workers and you had bridge workers and so on, and we combined them into what we call a transportation worker,” Bernhardt said. “So (now) I can have this transportation worker plowing a road one day, working on a bridge the next, working on a highway the next and working on rail the next.”

Overall, Bernhardt’s last annual report for the bureau recognized more than $10 million in annual savings.

But even if drastic cuts were made to the DOT work force and budget, some say it still wouldn’t make up the gap between the money available and the state’s infrastructure demands.

“Efficiencies are great, but that can’t be your answer. The challenge is . . . how are you going to get the money?” said Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, who serves on the Transportation Committee. Diamond praised LePage’s choice, calling him “cordial” and “professional.”

“It won’t take a long orientation for this new commissioner and I look forward to having him be in that position so we can pick up where we left off and not have to skip a beat regarding some of the major projects and what the department’s all about,” Diamond said, adding that Bernhardt’s challenge would be that much more daunting because LePage has made it clear he will not support an increase in the gas tax.

John O’Dea, chief executive officer of the Associated General Contractors of Maine, agreed that one of the biggest challenges facing Bernhardt would be the department’s budget.

“That’s just the harsh reality — we are in a very difficult position right now,” O’Dea said. “There’s the potential for less federal support than we’ve grown accustomed to, so having somebody who isn’t afraid to look at things differently is a good thing.”

Sen. Doug Thomas, R-Ripley, disagrees that the department’s budget situation is quite so dire, but he enthusiastically supports Bernhardt’s nomination.

“He and I are coming from the same page,” said Thomas, who serves on the Transportation Committee. “We’re looking for ways to get this work done and better ways to do it so it doesn’t cost us so much and so that we can get more done.”

Thomas said he’s been a vocal critic of the department in the past, but he is optimistic about Bernhardt even though he’s a DOT veteran.

“One of the things I’ve objected to is that as a member of the committee, I don’t think that I was ever listened to,” Thomas said. “That was the attitude I got a lot of times and I don’t get that from David. I know that I’m not going to win every argument, I know that I probably am not going to be able to change much, but I think he’s going to be a man that listens.”

Bernhardt’s reputation for compromise and practical decision-making has also impressed former colleagues and municipal officials with whom he has worked.

Roger Raymond, town manager of Bucksport, said he first met Bernhardt about 10 years ago when he was assigned to lead a reconstruction project on Route 1. The project had stalled in the past because the department anticipated problems with landowners along the road, but Bernhardt was able to successfully negotiate the difficulties, Raymond said.

“You brought an issue to him, he’d react to it, he’d always try to find a solution that was middle ground and certainly protected the department’s position, but as well reflected and addressed concerns that property owners had along that project area,” Raymond said.

Raymond also served with Bernhardt on a transportation task force. He said Bernhardt successfully led a group of transportation veterans with disparate ideas because he was willing to address tough issues.

“He didn’t try to put them on the back burner; he wanted to address them and find a solution. That impressed me,” Raymond said.

“Normally they like to live within the boundaries they’ve been given and they don’t like to stray away from those boundaries. David seems to be able to do that when it’s necessary.”

Coloring outside the lines also helps when maneuvering with limited resources, said John Melrose, who served as DOT commissioner under Gov. Angus King.

“The philosophy years ago was to try to make the road flatter, straighter, wider, and he was willing to work with me anyway in challenging those ideas,” Melrose said. “In the course of it we were able to therefore get the cost down by sticking with the footprint of the road where it was.

“He was comfortable taking on the notion that we didn’t need 8-foot paved shoulders on all of our highways, that we could get by with a 3- or 4-foot paved shoulder, and we’d work with the bicycle community to figure out what they needed at a minimum.”

Bernhardt lives in Vassalboro with his wife of 25 years, Carmen, and his 20-year-old son, Billy. He has two daughters: Jennifer, 22, a junior at the University of Maine at Farmington, and Nicole, 18, who will begin at UMF in the fall.

Bernhardt acknowledged that he plans on making changes at the department, but declined to offer details.

“A big piece of what I’ll be doing is looking externally and internally for any kind of advice or ideas,” he said. “I’ve already started internally and a lot of times you can be kind of surprised on the ideas that you can expand upon and improve.”

The department’s public reputation has suffered in the past because of a lack of transparency and failing to highlight the good work it does, he said.

“We just don’t get it out, we don’t tell our story. So you’re going to hear, you know, five men leaning on the shovel,” Bernhardt said. “It’s tough to please everybody all the time and it’ll eat you up if you try to. So you just have to compromise and you just have to work, whether it’s with municipal officials or our customers, which is the public.”

MaineToday Media State House Writer Rebekah Metzler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at:

[email protected]