Rahn is all about practical design

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By Harold Morgan

Pete Rahn’s path has taken him from Farmington to Santa Fe, where he was Highway and Transportation Department secretary for Gov. Gary Johnson, to Missouri, where he had the same job, to Kansas City, where he joined HNTB Corp., and back to New Mexico, where he lives while working with HNTB and is a member of the Transportation Commission.
HNTB, Rahn says, does large complex transportation projects but does not work in New Mexico, which means his commission post poses no conflict.
One modest insight into Rahn is his subscription to at least one car magazine. We visited at the Rahn dining table.
Practical Design provided an overview for consideration of the big picture of transportation (really, roads) in New Mexico. Practical Design is a conceptual road design and construction framework that Rahn started in New Mexico. The approach was fully developed in Missouri and has been adopted by other states. The word “practical” explains much.
“Practical design is about a lot of little things that add up to a lot,” Rahn says.
Some realities overlay New Mexico’s roads.
The big picture is that transportation is the foundation for economic activity and economic development in New Mexico, Rahn says. The state needs a good performing transportation system to compete. The transportation system affects everyone every day. Even if you stay home, the UPS delivery truck or the newspaper delivery will use the road.
The transportation bind is being a large state in terms of land area with a low density population, especially outside Albuquerque and Santa Fe, which are home to half our people. The result is that on a per-capita basis, transportation is much more expensive.
Transportation in New Mexico is challenged in many places, starting with resources. Roads need maintenance. Growing urban areas need more capacity. Rural roads need to be maintained as well as everywhere else. The debt burden limits options.
A problem is that people don’t think much about transportation except when it isn’t functioning. Out of sight, out of mind.
Today, “there aren’t enough resources to take care of the system,” Rahn says.  With practical design  the system needs to get priority over the wants of a project, “making all the decisions within the context of the needs of the system...” as opposed to thinking a project at a time.
Though using design standards as the only basis of a project can produce “a perfect project,” it is better to have a longer practical project serving more people than a normally conceived perfect project.
For example, a planned speed limit can drive the specifications for a road. But the common practice is to design for a higher speed limit than will be posted and spend more money. In any case, drivers will drive the speed limit with which they are comfortable. The practical design approach is to design the road for the speed that will be posted and not lure the public into driving faster.
Today new road discussions are moot. “We’re in a maintenance mode,” Rahn says. Building new roads is not on the table.
For the future, building toll roads is sometimes mentioned, sometimes by this columnist who grew up with toll roads. But New Mexico lacks enough traffic to justify tolling, Rahn says. Further, the feds say the state can’t impose tolls on Interstate highways.
Immediate approaches include effective performance measurement, a key, and an ethic of treasuring every dollar. Contractors might provide ideas discovered in other states.
The big question for Rahn is: “Does the road system need to look different?” We’re not in a position to make that decision now, he says. But eventually the decision might be forced upon us. That would not be good.
Harold Morgan
NM Progress