When Eulois Cleckley moved to the Mile High City in January 2018, Denver’s infrastructure looked like it was poised to grow. Voters had just approved a $937 million bond package for city projects, nearly half of which would be directed to mobility and transportation. And Cleckley, who previously was a transportation leader in Houston and Washington, D.C., was tapped to direct those projects.
At the time, though, Denver didn’t have comprehensive transportation objectives. The city didn’t even have a transportation department. So, when he was hired to lead the Department of Public Works (as it was known at the time), Cleckley knew change was overdue. A little more than two years later, he helped convince Denver to create the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure (DOTI) and has started implementing his vision for Denver’s next generation of mobility. We caught up with him in March to hear more about his background, his plan, and the challenges he discovered upon arrival.
5280: Let’s go back a couple years to when you first started working for the city. What was the first thing you really wanted to accomplish, and how did that go?
I had to come in and do two things: One, I needed to take a look at establishing this new department. The second was to get set up to handle the bond program that had just been voted on. In order to execute on the bond, it couldn’t have happened without really evaluating the department, staff, leadership, and resources—identifying the things we had that were positive and evaluating the challenges. The first two months, I spent a lot of time working with the team and trying to understand what structural changes we needed to adjust pretty quickly to try to start to deliver projects in our services in a more efficient fashion.
How has your work changed as a result of the shifts in the department?
The primary reason for creating this new department was really to change our mindset and our philosophy about how we build out design and our city infrastructure, including streets, bridges, sidewalks, and everything in the right of way. It was more of a reset philosophically about what our role is as a department to build out the best infrastructure that can move people in the most efficient manner, regardless of the mode that they choose.
You mentioned challenges. Were there any in particular that you didn’t expect, given your background in other metros?
People ask that of me a lot, and my typical response is that everything that was presented to me as part of my arrival [in Denver] are things I’ve seen before in other cities. So I don’t think there was anything that was unique to Denver. But one thing I did need to learn coming in was the nuances and the processes—the city budgets and the inclusive nature of the city’s decision making.
There were headlines in February about your relationship with the City Council. How do you collaborate with that body—as well as other city leaders?
I think it’s our responsibility to make sure we are open and transparent with the work that we’re planning, that we allow people to make comments on the work we’re doing, and that we then move forward with project ideas. Any time that you’re in this type of life, you’re going to run across circumstances where people might not like the work but that doesn’t prevent us from providing a forum and gathering feedback. We have to work on those relationships and try to address those concerns when they’re raised and try to satisfy everyone’s needs…We’re in this together.
Let’s talk about other cities. If you had to compare Denver to other metro areas: How are we doing? Are we keeping pace? Lagging behind?
I serve as the vice president for the National Association of City Transportation Officials—mid-size to large metros—and people look to Denver as a leader in transportation and, quite frankly, for a lot of public-sector service offerings that we’re involved in. I think people see Denver as being innovative and the culture of the city is one that’s inclusive.
But even though people see us that way, there are certain aspects of our infrastructure that we need to improve. We’re talking about improvements that are needed now based on the growth the city has experienced. These are new obstacles that were not present previously and were never designed for. We’re fixing issues with our infrastructure that were due to a planning decision that happened sometimes 60, 70, 80 years ago, when the mindset was not about trying to connect neighborhoods. You end up with infrastructure that is not geared toward multiple modes of transportation.
How do you work on moving a city on a daily basis—making sure people can get around well today—while also planning for a future where the population is not only growing, but shifting?
First of all, it starts with strong planning. The city, the past two years, has really updated our planning documents, including the city’s first-ever transit plan. And now we have a pedestrian and trails plan. It starts with planning. From there, you figure out how to get projects moving, figure out what agencies we need to collaborate with in order to modernize the transportation system. We have to have a mindset of making incremental changes and modernizing the entire city and transportation system…and moving into the next generation of mobility, which I think is really going to be focused on multi-modal options for people.
You talked about going back 60 or 70 years and looking at how the city was designed. As you went back and looked at historical factors, did anything surprise you?
Again, I don’t think Denver is different than any major city that’s been around for a long time. Cities have typically grown based on their transportation infrastructure…Denver was established on the intersection of the South Platte River and the expansion of the railroad. Down at 21st and Wynkoop, near Union Station, that’s really the birthplace of the growth of Denver. What’s historically happened is that cities have grown based on their rail infrastructure and their highway infrastructure. If you look at the period when things were built, it was often a one-track mind that resulted in barriers to certain communities having access to certain things. When you look at all the activity around where we have major rail hubs, we have clear divisions. We’re trying to fix that now.
Do you have a favorite street?
[Laughing] I think I have to say all the streets, right? I won’t paint myself into a corner and say I have a particular street I love.
Well, is there one project you’re particularly proud of right now?
I’ll highlight two projects. Last year, we ended up installing two bus-only lanes downtown off 15th Street and off 17th Street. That came out of an effort where everyone in our leadership stepped up to the plate last year to really accelerate the safety and engineering projects. We met every day for four months to get these projects done quicker. On 15th, we improved the bike lane and did it at the same time we built the transit-only lane.