When Pete K. Rahn, then Missouri’s transportation chief, proposed rebuilding 10 miles of the busiest interstate in St. Louis, his plan evoked more than the usual groans from motorists. Many in the city predicted a traffic disaster.
Rather than close a lane here and there, Rahn suggested, why not shut down the entire highway in five-mile chunks? Doing so, he said, would shorten construction by five years and save millions of dollars.
Some in the local news media predicted “Carmageddon.” One headline referred to closing the “road to sanity.”
Rahn, now the nominee for Maryland transportation secretary, reopened the highway in two years. The project was 24 days ahead of schedule and $11 million under budget, cementing Rahn’s reputation as an innovator focused on results. The magazine Governing named him one of its 2009 “public officials of the year,” and Rahn’s department drew “How’d you do it?” attention from highway agencies across the country.
“When he first proposed the idea, people were looking for a tree to hang him from,” said Mike Kehoe, a Republican state senator in Missouri. “But when he came out on the other end, people were clapping and looking to build a statue of him.”
As Maryland’s transportation secretary, pending state Senate confirmation, Rahn is being asked to make another bold move — one that has made him one of the most-watched Cabinet appointees in Gov. Larry Hogan’s new administration.
Hogan (R) has asked Rahn to recommend whether the state should continue plans to build a $2.45 billion light-rail Purple Line between Montgomery and Prince George’s counties and a $2.9 billion light-rail Red Line in Baltimore. During the campaign, Hogan called the transit projects too expensive and said more money should go to roads. A recent poll by The Washington Post and the University of Maryland found that 49 percent of Marylanders statewide favored continuing the Purple Line plans and 43 percent said the project should be canceled.
“We have to focus on needs,” Rahn said in a recent interview, “and recognize that we don’t have the resources to deliver on all the wants.”
Some transit advocates cringed when Hogan introduced Rahn, 60, to Marylanders as “the best highway builder in the entire country.” They noted that his résumé as a former transportation chief in Missouri and New Mexico included relatively little transit experience.
Road advocates, meanwhile, say they hope that Rahn will “rebalance” state transportation spending by shifting money from transit projects favored by former governor Martin O’Malley (D) to what they see as long-neglected road repairs and traffic relief.
Rahn said he and his staff are reviewing “decision points” over the decade-long Purple Line planning process, including the state’s choice of light rail over a less expensive bus option and the designs for the 21 proposed stations. He said he has met with the four teams of private companies bidding on the project to discuss the possibility of granting them more time and more “flexibility” in the contract requirements if they could cut costs. Bids on a 35-year public-private partnership to design, build and operate the line, as well as help finance its construction, are due March 12.
“We’re not starting from the point that says, ‘We’re going to kill this project,’ ” Rahn said in the interview, at the Maryland Department of Transportation headquarters in Hanover. “We’re looking at it from the standpoint of how can we meet the need for the lowest possible cost? . . . There are a number of ways to get there.”
Former colleagues and public officials in New Mexico and Missouri say Rahn pushes for quick results. In initial meetings with MDOT staff, he held up a fake highway sign given to him by his Missouri staff that read “Speed Limit — Warp 7” — a joke, he said, about his “faster, faster, faster” style. He said he also plans to get an air horn, like the one he used in Missouri to cut off staffers with a loud honk when they veered off hard numbers during quarterly reviews of the agency’s performance goals.
Before serving as New Mexico transportation secretary for a Republican governor from 1995 to 2002, he worked as an insurance company executive and a county treasurer. From 2004 to 2010, he served as Missouri transportation director, working for a bipartisan state commission. In both states, Rahn was known for finding new ways to leverage limited government funding. That included a 1997 highway project in New Mexico that was one of the first public-private transportation partnerships in the country.
“He built some very big projects that probably weren’t buildable without creative financing,” said Jack Basso, a transportation finance consultant and former official with the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.
Rahn might need to tap that experience soon. After his campaign pledges to reduce taxes, Hogan recently proposed legislation to abolish automatic increases in the state gas tax tied to inflation. Democrats in the General Assembly have vowed to fight the proposal, saying the gas-tax increase approved in 2013 provides vital transportation funding, particularly for the Purple and Red lines.
In Maryland, Rahn would oversee 10,000 employees, 17,800 lane miles of roads and a $4.9 billion annual budget. His responsibilities also would include the Port of Baltimore, the Maryland Transit Administration and Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport. His salary would be $174,400.
Some transit advocates say Rahn, at his core, is a highway guy. After leaving the Missouri Transportation Department in 2010, he spent four years with Kansas City, Mo.-based engineering firm HNTB, working with its state transportation agency clients, mostly on road and bridge projects.
“He wasn’t very interested in public transport,” said Hank Dittmar, a London-based urban design consultant who worked in New Mexico during Rahn’s tenure. “Pete Rahn has been a highway builder throughout his career. I hope he can see the Baltimore area and D.C. communities are a different kettle of fish.”
Even those who disagreed with Rahn describe him as highly personable and a polished speaker. Several former colleagues noted his ability to cultivate relationships, whether it was wooing lawmakers or hearing out community activists. He introduces himself with an aw-shucks “call me Pete.”
In Missouri, public officials say Rahn restored public confidence in a state agency that had a reputation for not delivering. He took over the top job just before state voters approved a constitutional change that resulted in more transportation funding. Rahn’s agency repaved 2,200 miles of road within 20 months and launched a program to repair and replace 800 bridges statewide. The five-year bridge program was finished in 3
“That gave the DOT credibility,” said Bill McKenna, a former Democratic state lawmaker and former chair of the state’s Highways and Transportation Commission.
Charlie Nemmers, director of the University of Missouri’s Transportation Infrastructure Center, described Rahn’s tenure as “transformational.”
“When he got there, Missouri interstates were rated the worst in the U.S. by trucking organizations,” Nemmers said. “When he left, they were in the top 10 percent in the country.”
The only vocal criticism of Rahn stems from the New Mexico highway-widening project that he oversaw as a public-private partnership in the late 1990s. Some state lawmakers blamed Rahn when a $62 million warranty for the road’s maintenance — one of the first such warranties in the nation — failed to protect the state from increases in the cost of asphalt materials. According to the Albuquerque Journal, the loophole has required the state to cover nearly $14 million in unexpected costs so far.
Although the 118-mile widening was finished in 29 months, the project also came under scrutiny when parts of the road began to crack and sink within a few years of its completion.
Rahn said highway officials knew “very limited sections” of the road were built over collapsing soils along the Continental Divide — one reason they sought a maintenance warranty. He said his agency’s study of past oil prices — liquid asphalt is produced from crude oil — did not accurately predict that costs would rise. If he negotiated a similar warranty today, Rahn said, he’d “fight harder” to cap a state’s exposure to rising asphalt prices.
Even so, he said as he pointed to photos of the freshly paved highway, “This warranty was a success.”
Rahn retains strong ties to New Mexico, where his two grown children and two grandchildren live, and where his wife, Sue, plans to remain until their daughter’s wedding in November. He said he and his wife plan to keep their home in Placitas, where they hope to retire.
Meanwhile, he said, he has settled into a townhouse in Severn, in Anne Arundel County, with a fresh shipment of Ikea furniture. He said he signed a one-year lease, adding with a smile, “I’m optimistic I’ll be confirmed.”