Road Warrior

The rideís been bumpy, but Pete Rahn has made quite an impression since taking over at the reins at the Missouri Department of Transportation.

Not long into his tenure, Rahn and his staff spent two days parsing out a corporate strategy for MoDOT that critics contend reads like fortune-cookie prophecy: "Our mission is to provide a world-class transportation experience that delights our customers and promotes a prosperous Missouri."

"I sent the new mission statement out to all 6,300 MoDOT employees and I got 370 e-mails back," Rahn recounts. "A lot of people had problems with the words 'world-class' and 'delights.' They asked me, 'Isn't it enough just to make people happy? Do we have to delight them, too?' My position is we should set the bar as high as possible."

His way or the highway: Pete Rahn insists he's the right man for the job ¬ó critics be damned.
tony nelson
His way or the highway: Pete Rahn insists he's the right man for the job ¬ó critics be damned.
Highway commissioner Bill McKenna hired Rahn to fix MoDOT’s troubled image.
Jennifer Silverberg/Stylist: Vivian Ogler
Highway commissioner Bill McKenna hired Rahn to fix MoDOT’s troubled image.

Thirty-five thousand. Thats the number of vehicles MoDOT says it needs to disappear from the roads in order to make the I-64 renovation work.

The formula goes something like this: Each day some 175,000 cars and trucks travel the twelve-mile stretch of I-64 between Kingshighway Boulevard in the city and Spoede Road in St. Louis County. According to transportation department figures, the highway's alternative routes — Interstate 44, I-70, Manchester Road, Page Avenue, Clayton Road — can handle a maximum of 140,000 additional vehicles per day, leaving no room for some 35,000 autos.

"Those drivers are going to have to flex their work hours, telecommute, carpool or use mass transit," explains Rahn during a stop by MoDOT's Chesterfield office earlier this summer. "We're not trying to kid anybody. This is going to be difficult and inconvenient, but we're confident St. Louis is going to survive."

In the months before the project's plans were made clear, much public clamoring was made as to whether the contractor would close all twelve miles of interstate during construction. St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay referred to the notion as the "nuclear option" that could have a catastrophic impact on downtown's nascent resurgence. St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley also implored the agency to keep the highway open.

In May 2006 the civic booster group Downtown St. Louis Partnership released a study that indicated shutting down just one lane of I-64 would cost the region $38 million in lost productivity. Shutting down two lanes raised the losses to $89 million. The study never took into account the possibility that that the entire highway would close. "It's just not something we contemplated," says partnership president Jim Cloar.

A few months earlier, the East-West Gateway Council of Governments, a regional committee charged with distributing federal transportation funds, passed a resolution urging MoDOT to restrict its contractor from closing I-64. MoDOT's own telephone survey — conducted in December 2005 — found that of the 1,300 area residents polled, 66 percent opposed shutting down the interstate, even if it meant an earlier completion date. Publicly, Rahn downplayed concern that the entire stretch of I-64 would close but left open the possibility that parts of the highway would shut down. Still, more than a few public officials were taken aback last November when MoDOT announced its winning bidder — Gateway Constructors — would complete the project in just three years by closing down the highway in two different sections.

Beginning next January both east- and west-bound lanes will close between I-170 and west of Spoede Road. In 2009 the eastern half of the project between 170 and Kingshighway will close for construction.

"By leaving one side of the highway open Rahn argues that he's not totally shutting down the highway," posits East-West Gateway executive director Les Sterman. "But it's like a pipe. If you shut off one side, the water is not going to flow. It's the same thing with a highway. It doesn't alleviate a thing."

The losing I-64 bidder — a consortium of contractors known as FAM-64 and led by the Texas-based Fluor Enterprises Inc. — proposed rebuilding the highway while leaving two lanes open in each direction. Rahn says that while the FAM-64 proposal may have appeased certain critics, it would have provided fewer structural improvements and stretched construction over four years. By contrast, he refers to the Gateway Constructors plan as a "very bold" approach that will speed construction and make the work zone safer by eliminating through traffic.

The design-build model of the project will also save MoDOT a considerable amount of money. "If we did this the conventional way, we'd need another $200 million and the construction would take ten years," notes Rahn. "Design-build provides greater efficiencies. The contractors mobilize their equipment just one time and purchase in quantities that provide real savings."

The 200-plus-page environmental impact study that MoDOT drafted for the "New I-64" cites several more economic benefits. The report concludes St. Louis drivers will shave 9,000 hours off their commute time, for a cost savings of $850 million over twenty years. The study further suggests that commuters will save an additional $460 million in vehicle operating costs thanks to the roadway's smooth pavement. Drivers will retain some $155 million in crash-cost savings over twenty years.

Curiously, the MoDOT study provides no such numbers for the financial impact the construction will have on commuters and businesses. Republican state representative Scott Muschany of Frontenac estimates that figure will exceed $100 million.

"They say they're doing it this way because it saves MoDOT money," says Muschany. "But what about the businesses along that corridor? They're exacting a tremendous toll on them. Employees are coming in late, companies are setting up satellite offices to deal with traffic, deliveries are taking longer — you name it. It's a tremendous burden."

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