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It is a sweltering June morning, but inside a windowless conference room at the Sheraton Westport, the air is as cool and dark as Meramec Caverns while 30 highway engineers, clad in khakis and golf shirts, nibble on the remaining crumbs from the hotel breakfast bar.
The group has come from as far away as Wyoming to attend the annual leadership conference presented by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO). And this morning they'll be treated to a presentation by one of the biggest names in the business: Pete Rahn.
A dozen years after first tackling roadway issues, Rahn today draws repeated accolades within the tight-knit world of state highway czars. "Pete's a new kind of highway director," notes Florida's former transportation secretary Thomas Barry Jr. "He didn't come up through the conventional ranks, and he's not afraid to innovate."
Rahn led the transportation department in his home state of New Mexico from 1995 to 2002. Two years later in 2004, a nationwide talent search landed Rahn the top spot with the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) a job he wields today with ever greater power. In September Rahn will add another notch to his belt when he takes on AASHTO's revolving presidency.
Despite his gravitas, the 52-year-old Rahn remains eminently approachable. He accents his business suits with garish, transportation-themed neckties (cars, stoplights, school buses) that lend him the folksy affability of an elementary school principal. After driving his state-owned Chevy Impala in from Jefferson City, Rahn bursts into the quiet conference room with the unflappable vim of a campaigning politician.
"How are you?" roars Rahn, extending a hand to a few startled conference-goers. Offered the same enthusiastic salutation, Rahn shouts back: "Me? Oh, I'm fantastic! Great! Awesome!"
He's even more spirited when addressing the entire crowd, and he peppers the start of his hour-long Q&A with a few jokes. Rahn deadpans that he took the MoDOT job because he liked the acronym. "My old agency was the New Mexico State Highway and Transportation Department, or the NMSHTD," he says. "Invariably, everyone pronounced it 'Nim-shitted.' You can imagine what that does to an agency's morale!"
As to his insights on effective management, Rahn relays a story from New Mexico. The governor had just appointed him to head the state's transportation department, and the first thing the inexperienced Rahn did was gather his employees together for a meeting.
"I encouraged them that it was their job to challenge their managers," recalls Rahn.
"And right after I said that, a guy stood up and said: 'Well, I think you're going to really screw things up, and after four years we'll be left cleaning up your mess.'"
The man would challenge Rahn several more times during the speech before he realized the employee was just doing what he asked him. "He was challenging the leadership!" exclaims Rahn. The next time the employee interrupted him, Rahn rewarded the man for his candor by extending him a day off work with pay. "No sooner did I say that that another employee stood up from his chair and shouted: 'Yeah, well, I don't like you either!'"
These days a number of critics in Missouri are also shouting out their displeasure for Pete Rahn. This winter Rahn infuriated leaders on both sides of the Mississippi River by pushing for a private toll bridge to address the region's burgeoning interstate traffic concerns. After months of political squabbling, Rahn backed off the toll bridge plan this past May. Now $239 million in federal earmarks are in jeopardy of expiring as Missouri and Illinois officials continue to wrangle over plans for the bridge.
More pressing for residents of St. Louis is MoDOT's controversial plan to rebuild twelve miles of Interstate 64 (Highway 40). Last November the transportation department rejected the wishes of regional leaders and residents when it approved a $530 million plan that will close down parts of St. Louis' main east-west artery for two years.
"To call that situation a 'quagmire' in the making is a gross understatement," says Democratic state representative Tom Villa of St. Louis, who, in a speech before the General Assembly, compared Rahn to the engaging con artist Harold Hill in The Music Man.
"The analogy was that he's selling us the band uniforms, instruments and everything else, while turning a deaf ear to our real needs and concerns," comments Villa, who remembers that Rahn showed up unannounced the next day at his Jefferson City legislative office.
"I don't know if his minions told him to see me or what," recalls Villa. "But I will say this about him: He's a heck of a salesman and charismatic, too!"
Pete Rahn quickly made a name for himself at MoDOT by bringing a portable air horn with him to the departments quarterly performance evaluations. Whenever someone offers an excuse for not meeting their performance goals, I blast the horn, he says. Its my version of The Gong Show. Other gimmicks include arriving at press conferences dressed in the type of Day-Glo safety vest worn by highway workers. To further promote driver safety, Rahn has gone so far as to set up his office on the shoulder of Highway 63 between Columbia and Jefferson City. A plastic flowerpot glued to his desk completed the scene.