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.

This past spring Muschany crafted a House resolution demanding that MoDOT leave the highway open during renovation. The non-binding legislation garnered 40 co-sponsors but never reached the floor for a vote. Either way, Muschany says it wouldn't have mattered. Missouri is one of only seven states whose transportation department is ruled by a citizen committee of highway commissioners — and not the governor or legislature.

"In Missouri we really don't even have budgetary control, because MoDOT has dedicated income from the vehicle sales tax," laments Muschany. "They're ironclad. I can scream and shout as much as I want and they disregard public outcry and say, 'OK, now we're going to go ahead and do it our way.'"

Yet Muschany isn't giving up. He believes MoDOT failed to properly study the economic consequences of the project before agreeing to shut down parts of the highway. Now he's searching for a person or business whose property lies adjacent to the construction zone and can claim financial damage.

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.

"The next phase is legal action," promises Muschany, who says he's secured attorneys willing to work pro bono on the case and an unnamed — but wealthy — individual who's agreed to bankroll the legal battle for as long as it takes. "It's not that I don't think Highway 40 needs to be improved, I'm just saying whose bright idea was it to close the road for two years?"

Ultimately, the state representative pins that blame on Rahn. "He's the one in charge, and he's accountable," says Muschany. "I don't think it's from ill intent, but then, there are a lot of people who do stupid, goofy things and don't know they're causing a major problem."

Rahn's tenure in New Mexico was not free of controversy. In 1999 the Albuquerque Journal ran an investigative series on the manner in which Rahns transportation department bid the $314 million widening of N.M. 44 (now U.S. 550).

The series began: "Pete Rahn had a problem. It was April 1997 and Gov. Gary Johnson had let his Highway and Transportation Department chief know in no uncertain terms that he wanted N.M. 44 from San Ysidro to the Farmington area widened to four lanes. But Rahn didn't have any way to do it."

Two weeks after the governor's order, Rahn announced he'd received an "unsolicited" proposal from Kansas-based Koch Industries. The offer outlined a way in which the cash-strapped state of New Mexico could build, design, finance and warranty the highway through a public-private partnership.

The Journal later reported that specifications from the Koch proposal were used to draft the RFP (request for proposals) to bid the highway. Koch won the contract when no one else bothered to submit a bid. The Journal also quoted Koch executive Bob Heitmann, who confirmed that the "unsolicited" offer from his company had in fact been solicited earlier by employees within Rahn's office.

In response to the Journal series, Rahn drafted a handout critical of the newspaper's reporting and denied knowing of anyone in his office who contacted Koch about the N.M. 44 bid.

Like the current plans to rebuild I-64, the N.M. 44 proposal followed the basic tenets of the design-build model. Koch controlled the entire scope of project and completed construction within three years. The roadwork recently has come under additional attack as parts of the highway have begun to crack and buckle just a few years following construction.

"That road is 118 miles and crosses over mountains, basins and deserts with extremely unstable soils," defends Rahn. "The problem area is maybe three miles long. Given those difficulties, I'd say it was an extremely successful project."

As was the case in New Mexico, Rahn's critics in Missouri are now asking pointed questions about several MoDOT bids, including I-64. Last November Rahn raised eyebrows when he offered a handful of area leaders the opportunity to review the two competing bids for the project — but only on the condition that they sign a confidentiality agreement not to discuss the proposals outside the meeting. Mayor Slay and Les Sterman, of East-West Gateway, declined the invite.

"I was very uncomfortable about meeting and making a decision behind closed doors," Slay told the Post-Dispatch the next day. "I also don't think two hours was enough time to read all of the documents, fully understand, and make an informed decision." (Slay's office did not respond to numerous interview requests for this article.)

Sterman calls the confidential meeting one of the stranger requests he's seen in his 30 years of working on public transportation issues. "When you're spending $500 million in public money it should be as open a process as possible," says Sterman. "There was no reason for it to be a private meeting. The public didn't know anything about the project until after it was already signed and a done deal."

The East-West Gateway director raises additional concerns over the lack of competition involving design-build projects. "The problem with that model is that you're only going to have one or two bidders," states Sterman. "The projects are so large and cost so much to develop a proposal that any logical contractor wants at least a 50-50 chance of winning the bid."

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