A few years ago, Missouri had a big problem. A 10-mile stretch of I-64, the major east-west artery leading into St. Louis, desperately needed to be rebuilt. The project was expected to be a six-year, $700 million mess. But Pete Rahn had an idea for how to save time and money: Shut down the highway, five miles at a time.
Closing a highway that carries 150,000 people a day is a big risk, both logistically and politically. For Rahn, it was typical. His first big gamble was getting involved in transportation policy at all. He had studied urban planning, but then worked as an insurance agent and was serving in local office in New Mexico when the governor of that state offered him a choice in 1995. He could be the cabinet secretary of either tourism or highways. Rahn remembers what a friend told him: "If you want to have fun, take tourism. And if you want to make a difference, take the highway department." He chose highways.
Rahn has made a difference, mostly by giving contractors vast flexibility but holding them strictly accountable for their work. In New Mexico, Rahn signed the first long-term warranty on a highway project in U.S. history. When he came to Missouri in 2004, he began to flip contracting on its head. Rather than bidding out specific work and asking contractors what they'll charge, he tells contractors how much money the state can spend and asks what they can build.
The best evidence that Rahn's way is working is I-64. After only two years under construction, the highway will reopen in December, at a cost of just $535 million. And to the surprise of Rahn's critics, traffic disruptions have been relatively mild. Rahn acknowledges that not every risk taken will work out so well, but he says that's no reason for caution. "I believe in the 9-1 record," he says. "The public is willing to allow you to fail, if you give them nine wins to every failure."
— Josh Goodman
Photo by Virginia Lee Hunter