For anyone interested in major road and bridge repairs in the Capital Region, adoption of electric vehicles or the not-so-distant day when cars will drive themselves, Michael Franchini has for most of the last decade been the guy to talk with.
Franchini, 65, who as executive director of the Capital District Transportation Committee is the region’s top transportation planner, will be retiring in July, he announced this week.
As he departs, he is optimistic that Congress is finally ready to approve a significant increase in funding for highway and bridge work — based on a bill that the House approved last year, or perhaps the $2 trillion American Jobs Act that President Joseph Biden recently proposed. The current federal transportation funding bill, the FAST Act, expires in September. It’s possible Congress could extend that legislation while negotiating the Biden bill.
“I think for the most part people are starting to realize we are not making enough investment in our infrastructure, and that includes roads and bridges. We’ve been barely maintaining what we have to keep it safe,” Franchini said. “There are some areas Republicans and Democrats can agree on, and transportation should be one of them.”
Franchini has been CDTC’s leader for the last nine years but has spent his entire career in water or infrastructure planning. The CDTC controls the spending of federal transportation money for Albany, Schenectady, Saratoga and Rensselaer counties — major highway and bridge repairs as well as development of amenities like bike trails don’t happen without its blessing.
The committee, with a professional staff of 12 based at an office on Wolf Road, is set up to insure decisions about the spending of roughly $100 million in federal Department of Transportation money are made locally, rather than by distant bureaucrats. Franchini said the five-year capital spending plans staff discusses and negotiates every three years is among the highlights of his work.
“I think CDTC is a great example of regional cooperation among our members,” he said on Tuesday. “I think it’s a highlight every time the members agreed on a Transportation Improvement Program. Our members get together and they discuss, negotiate and analyze a five-year plan for our entire region. It’s a great example of cooperation and consensus building.”
A planning committee made up of municipal engineers, planners and public works officials discusses and makes the recommendations to a policy committee that meets quarterly, and is made up of elected leaders, leading transportation officials or their designees; Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan is the current chairperson.
Looking forward, Franchini said he believes the widespread adoption of electric vehicles is in the near future, though more money will need to be invested in charging infrastructure. “Instead of gasoline stations you need charging stations,” he said.
He also believes self-driving cars and trucks are just a few years away from being common — Tesla and other companies are developing the technology fast, and the interstate trucking industry faces a shortage of tens of thousands of drivers.
“It’s hard for some people to believe, but the technology is being developed very quickly,” Franchini said. “When American companies put their mind to it, they can develop technology very quickly.”
He also believes investments in mass transit and bike trails need to continue, as young people seek alternatives to driving to work each day, and as government policy seeks to reduce the amount of polluting carbon emissions from transportation. “You’ve got to look at it too, how many cars can we put on the road? We can’t keep building new roads, using more single-occupant cars. That is not a sustainable future,” he said.
Franchini, a native of Albany who lives in the city, first worked on the committee in 1997, when he was Albany County’s deputy commissioner of public works and representing Albany County.
“The choice to retire was not an easy decision, but I felt the time was right,” Franchini said. “I would like to thank all the CDTC members for their cooperation, participation, and their willingness to reach a regional consensus. I’m looking forward to spending more time with my wife and our kids and grandkids.”
Franchini has been married for 42 years and has three grown children and six grandchildren.
He attended Vincentian Institute and the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, where he studied oceanography. He spent 12 years in the Coast Guard, and during that time attended Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, graduating with a master’s in public administration.
After the Coast Guard, he returned to Albany and worked as an environmental consultant and contractor. In 1992, Albany Mayor Thomas M. Whalen appointed him city commissioner of water. In 2004, he was appointed Albany County commissioner of public works, and also elected chairman of the CDTC Planning Committee. In 2010, he was appointed Albany County director of operations. In June 2012, he was named CDTC’s executive director, following the retirement of John Poorman.
The CDTC has begun the search for a new executive director, advertising the opening with a salary of between $120,000 and $140,000 annually.