By Lindsay Toler
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"Trucks were driving by and blowing stuff all over," says Rahn, whose dearth of hobbies, he concedes, provide him ample time to dream up work-related ideas. "I think a CEO's job is to show leadership in a demonstrable way that the public and members of your organization can understand. Sure, some things may seem corny, but they convey a message: In this case, the public needs to know that the roads are our maintenance workers' office and people need to slow down."
Sadly, those words came only a few weeks before a drunken driver from St. Peters struck and killed Gavin Donohue, a 22-year-old student at the University of Missouri-Rolla, while he was working on a Highway 40 road construction project just east of the Boone's Crossing overpass in Chesterfield.
Charged with running one of the state's largest bureaucracies, with more than 6,000 employees and a budget north of $2.3 billion, Pete Rahn acknowledges he was an unlikely candidate for the state's top highway job.
"I'm the first to admit that there's nothing on my résumé that would have anyone saying, 'Oh, this guy would make a great transportation secretary,'" says the MoDOT director, whose office at the state capital is adorned with a bumper sticker on the wall that reads: "Dreams Minus Action = Squat."
"I'm sure there are plenty of people who thought I'd be terrible," adds Rahn, "but I don't believe that's the case."
In the early 1990s Rahn was employed as an insurance agent in the northwestern New Mexico town of Farmington. Out of nowhere he leapfrogged to become that state's transportation secretary. As he explains it, a friend of his in the state legislature was running for governor on the Republican ticket and asked Rahn to help raise funds. The friend lost the primary to soon-to-be governor Gary Johnson, who recruited Rahn to join him on his campaign. After Johnson won the governorship, Rahn was rewarded with a choice of two cabinet positions: transportation or tourism.
"At first I wasn't really interested. I already had a job, but the governor was a big believer in the efficiencies of the private sector and was making a cabinet of businesspeople," he recalls. "A colleague suggested that if I really wanted to make a difference, I'd take the transportation job."
While seemingly unqualified for the position, Rahn, who fancies himself more a CEO than government bureaucrat, maintains he wasn't completely ill-suited for the job. He'd earned a degree in city and regional planning during his days at New Mexico State University in the 1970s. At the age of 24 he was elected county treasurer for rural San Juan County, located along the Arizona/Colorado/Utah border. Later he served as president of the New Mexico Association of Counties.
As New Mexico's transportation secretary, Rahn rolled up his sleeves and instituted business techniques not previously associated with state government, such as department-wide performance trackers and the use of so-called design-build projects.
The I-64 renovation in St. Louis follows the design-build model, with the contractor responsible for all aspects of the project, including the engineering, architecture and construction. (Traditionally the state has awarded road contracts on the design-bid-build model, in which projects are designed, put out for bid and built by the lowest-priced contractor.)
After six years on the job, Rahn boasts that his department became the first state agency to win New Mexico's Zia Award an honor based on the prickly requirements of the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Rahn resigned the post in 2002, just prior to the end of Johnson's second term in office, when the new governor-elect Bill Richardson would select his own cabinet.
He was working as a government liaison for bridge manufacturer Contech Construction Projects when a corporate headhunter recruited Rahn for the MoDOT position. Until moving to Jefferson City, Rahn had spent his entire life in New Mexico and says he never anticipated leaving home. His two adult children still live in New Mexico. "My wife and I like Missouri," says Rahn, "except for the humidity. It's murder."
Bill McKenna, a member of the six-person Missouri Highway Commission, recalls that the transportation department was in desperate straits when it hired Rahn. "Seventy-five percent of the voters recently had disapproved of additional funding for MoDOT," says McKenna. "The then-governor Bob Holden chastised the commission to get its act together, and the previous MoDOT director subsequently resigned."
The highway commission, says McKenna, sought a leader with a passion to shake things up and the personality to charm both the media and MoDOT's many detractors. From dozens of candidates, Rahn emerged as the unanimous choice. In September 2004 he accepted the $140,000-per-year post and became the first non-engineer ever to lead MoDOT.
"So he doesn't have a degree in engineering," posits McKenna. "We needed someone to do things differently, and so far that's been the case."
Rahn began by initiating the "Smooth Road Initiative" that repaved 2,200 miles of Missouri's busiest highways. McKenna notes that the project has not gone unnoticed, with a national survey announcing last month that the quality of Missouri roads jumped from 28th best in the nation in 2004 to 17th in 2005.