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Dane County transportation commissioner Jerry Mandli looks back on achievements, forward for Wisconsin transportation

By: Ethan Duran//April 6, 2023//

Dane County transportation commissioner Jerry Mandli looks back on achievements, forward for Wisconsin transportation

By: Ethan Duran//April 6, 2023//

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Jerry Mandli, P.E., served as the transportation commissioner for Dane County since 2003. He retired in March. Some of his duties included overseeing snowplow operations, solid waste and training of staff. (Photo courtesy of Dane County)

It started with a magazine falling on the floor to a page open calling for a solid waste manager in Dane County.

Jerry Mandli, the P.E. Commissioner for the Dane County Highway and Transportation Department, wore many hats throughout his more than three-decade engineer. Before his last day on the job on March 17, he told The Daily Reporter about his career in municipal service and his predictions for the future of renewables and transportation.

When Mandli’s retirement was announced, Dane County Executive Joe Parisi praised the engineer and innovative approach to addressing challenges in Wisconsin’s fastest growing county.

“Jerry’s innovative approach to addressing challenges and collaborative team problem-solving has led to tremendous growth and success in the work he oversees, especially as his departments have faced unique issues here in Wisconsin’s fastest growing county,” Parisi said in a statement.

While working for a public authority in upstate New York, a coworker’s magazine fell off his office desk and fell open to a page advertising a solid waste management job in Dane County. He sent his application to Madison and when he went in for the interview, he said he had great chemistry with the director at the time.

“Within 15 minutes we could probably finish each other’s sentences,” he said.

Mandli started in the county’s solid waste department on July 6, 1992, county officials said. He was the youngest person in the operation at the time and oversaw a program that captured landfill gas and sold it to third parties and energy to utilities. When gas prices went up, Mandli was part of the team that converted more than half of the department’s fleet to run on biofuels.

He joined the transportation department in 2003 where he found great pride in plowing the roads during snow and icy weather. Over the years, Mandli said technology changed and played a larger role in training with transportation staff, being implemented in public transportation and the prevalence of electric vehicles driven by fuel prices.

Mandli earned his degrees in civil and environmental engineering at the University of Wisconsin – Madison.

The Daily Reporter: How do you see trends for alternate transportation solutions starting in Dane County?

Jerry Mandli: While my background is math, science and engineering, I’m also kind of a history buff. History kind of repeats itself. This year, Dane County and other counties will be doing a lot of painting. It won’t be the three- or four-inch line, but a six-inch line in anticipation there will be more autonomous vehicles coming. They travel better when they can see a six-inch line. So, you can see that trend is starting.

Gas prices and diesel just hit almost five dollars a gallon. With that, it really drives technology. There was an announcement from Cummins on how far they’ve come with electrolysis in producing hydrogen for vehicles or hydrogen fuel cells. Once again, it was higher diesel prices, and that technology came so fast based on the economics. I think you’re going to see a real push on the hydrogen side in the transportation industry.

TDR: Can you tell us about things you accomplished during your time working as a solid waste manager?

Mandli: I worked as the solid waste manager up until 2003 and here were several retirements that occurred. The public works director and after a couple years the highway commissioner. The county executive approached me and asked about being the department head for public works, solid waste and the highway.

We looked at capturing waste heat while generating electricity and built a new facility near the landfill called the East District Campus Highway Facility. … We were able to capture waste heat from the landfill and brought it across the road. There were heating units in the building and hot water heated by the waste.

As we produced landfill gas, back when gasoline was about four dollars a gallon 15 years ago, we looked into the possibility of using it as a fuel. There was a company in Monroe that made tanks for equipment that used natural gas, like trucks and buses. We built a small fueling station and started piloting some of the vehicles.

In the movie “Back to the Future,” towards the end, Doc puts food into the flux capacitor. Essentially, that’s what we’re doing. We’re running vehicles off landfill gas and garbage. It’s kind of funny that some of the things that were fiction are now reality.

TDR: What advice do you have for your successor?

Mandli: You have to listen and learn the job. You must be straight with people and honest. Do your research and be prepared. I was always taught to never care who gets the credit and just do good things. In the morning I think, ‘What am I going to do to make Dane County a better place to work and live?’

The other thing I think of is, ‘Don’t judge me on my successes. Judge me when I fell down, how I recovered and got back up.’ I’ve been in the Emergency Operations Center for almost all the times its been activated. Working in those teams, sometimes you learn the most when you recover.

TDR: Why did you choose municipal service?

Mandli: I had chances to work in the private sector, but this seemed so fascinating to go where the learning curve would be steep and there would be exposure to a lot of different projects. It’s good to learn and experience things, have mentors that can teach you and just be a sponge and be exposed to different items as opposed to a streamline piece.

Having people see your value and what you can bring to the table, I got that feel talking to folks where I did get my first job. When I came back to Madison I had a toolbox of experience. When you come back where you grew up with family and it’s challenging, and your family can get negative reactions when you’re involved in controversial projects.

You’re also motivated to do the best you can do. If it’s a roadway that needs to be snowplowed, you want your family to be safe. It’s an interesting motivation.


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