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.

The I-64 renovation brought just two bidders, with MoDOT awarding the losing contractor a stipend of $1 million for its work drafting a bid. Last week Missouri's only other design-build project — a plan to rebuild some 800 state bridges — was delayed after the two bidders for the work expressed concern over the performance bonds for the $600 million to $800 million project.

For his part, Rahn continues to champion the design-build formula and private-public partnerships. "My fingerprints are all over the I-64 project," says Rahn. "When I came into office the plan was to do this over thirteen years and in multiple pieces that would cost the state a lot of money. The simple fact is that design-build is the most economical way to take on a large, complex project like this."

In February Rahn raised suspicion among Missouri and Illinois officials when he produced an "unsolicited" offer from Texas-based Zachry American Infrastructure. The proposal detailed plans in which Zachry would construct a privately financed, $1 billion toll bridge to connect I-70 across the Mississippi River. Named in the plans was Zachry executive Bob Heitmann — the same man who worked for Koch Industries in the 1990s, when Rahn received the "unsolicited" offer to rebuild New Mexico's Highway 44.

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.

"'Unsolicited' doesn't mean that it drops out of the clear blue sky," explains Rahn. "It simply means that we haven't made a formal request for proposals. But anyone who follows these issues knows were looking at alternatives. It's not uncommon at all then to receive unsolicited proposals."

The Zachry offer quickly set off a fight between Rahn and regional officials, who, prior to the unsolicited offer, were prepared to approve construction of a smaller coupler bridge adjacent to the Martin Luther King span. So heated was the debate that MoDOT reportedly refused Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) workers access to survey the Missouri side of the river.

By March the squabbling had reached Washington D.C., with U.S. Representative William Lacy Clay penning a letter to Governor Matt Blunt. "I urge you to work with the Missouri Highway Commission to direct MoDOT director Pete Rahn to work in a similar cooperative fashion with IDOT," Clay wrote the governor.

U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill also joined the fray, telling the Belleville News-Democrat that she'd been working behind the scenes to end the bickering. "There has been some stubbornness," said McCaskill. "And in fairness to Illinois, the stubbornness has been on the Missouri side of the line."

Rahn abruptly dropped the plans for the toll bridge in April when he presented a proposal that would have Illinois shouldering $500 million of a $569 million bridge to connect Interstate 70. "Our analysis was that the MLK coupler bridge would have paralyzed downtown traffic," defends Rahn. "Hopefully this new proposal will be a good compromise. No one has thrown any big stones at it yet."

As for the strife he's caused with the toll bridge proposal and I-64, Rahn remains unapologetic. "A lot of what we do can be controversial, but that doesn't mean we're wrong."

Back at the Sheraton hotel last month, Rahn tells tomorrow's transportation leaders to follow a similar path. "The problem — and allure — of this job is that there is never enough money to do every project you want," says Rahn. "Innovation can damage your career. But if you're not making mistakes, then you're not pushing boundaries."

At the conclusion of the morning Q&A Rahn will climb back in his Impala for the two-and-a-half-hour drive to Jefferson City. The trip jumps to three hours if Rahn stops along the highway — as he's apt to do — to thank MoDOT construction workers for the jobs they do.

"The secret to success," Rahn imparts, "is to get at least 30 percent of the people behind you. They'll turn the opinion of another 50 percent. The 20 percent left over will have to decide to either get on the bus or get out of the way."

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