Talking Shop with Kevin Keith, Missouri Department of Transportation director

Monday, January 10, 2011
Kevin Keith is the Director of the Missouri Department of Transportation. (Kristin Eberts)

Kevin Keith's career with the Missouri Department of Transportation spans more than 25 years. Since being appointed director of the department in November, he has been working to convince Missourians it's time to invest more in infrastructure. Most recently, Keith served as MoDOT's chief engineer, and engineering is something he says he's know he wanted to do from an early age. After receiving his bachelor's degree in civil engineering from the University of Missouri-Columbia, one of his first projects took him to Jefferson City to oversee the construction of its second Missouri River bridge.

Question: How did you get to where you are now?

Answer: I knew what I was going to do when I was 12 years old. I've always been wanting to build a bridge or a road. This is my 27th year with MoDOT. I've worked in half of our districts. I've worked in design, construction, planning. I've just always been willing to take on that next assignment when someone said, "Well, we don't know what this is going to do, but do you want to try it?" For the last 10 years I've been the chief engineer. I've been involved with every fact and direction and progress that we've made. I was pretty comfortable there. You'd think being the chief engineer would be the pinnacle of your career. I took over as interim director last March, so I've been running things for about a year, but officially on Nov. 4 I was appointed director.

Q: How does your training and experience as an engineer help you in your role as MoDOT director?

A: It's not just being an engineer; it's that I've been with MoDOT for 27 years. I know every priority in Missouri, I know every place in Missouri. I think that's what really helps me. I know the people, I know the problems, I know the projects. I don't need my engineering degree to do my job, but the fact that I have it and have used it helps me understand immediately what everyone's talking about. I don't have a learning curve.

Q: What initially got you interested in the field of engineering?

A: Bridges. I can't remember how old I was, but when I was a kid living in Michigan and there was a creek running through our subdivision. I got some of my buddies together one day and said, "I think I can dam this up." And I built a dam so good it put five foot of water over the road. People are just naturally good at things, that's just the kind of stuff I was good at. I was always the brightest in math but couldn't spell a lick. That's just the side of me that works.

Q: What's something people would be surprised to know about MoDOT?

A: I am amazed at the wide range of diverse disciplines that work for us. We do roads, but we have accountants, writers, archaeologists and environmentalists. The wide range of folks necessary to get our job done is amazing.

Q: Describe your practical design approach and its effect in Missouri and elsewhere.

A: Practical design: Build good, not great. In our industry and others, everyone wants the project to be perfect. We can't afford perfect, but we deserve good. If we won't focus on a perfect project and instead focus on a good project and more good projects so we can have our system be good -- that's the concept of practical design. How can I build a good project to serve the needs, but maybe not perfect? Instead of building a bridge 44 feet wide with two 12-foot shoulders, maybe I'll build it 24 feet wide with two 12-foot lanes and two 2-foot shoulders. Works perfectly good on route fill-in-the-blank. Our whole industry had said you might put a 10-foot shoulder on this road someday so you should build every bridge and every road 44 feet wide. We don't need to do that. Solve the problem, do a good job of it, but do it cheaper. We've been doing this for about six years, and it's been tough because you're changing the whole design philosophy of an organization, but it's saved us $1 billion. It has worked well enough that other states, like Kentucky, have adopted what we're doing.

Q: What are you most proud of accomplishing in your 27 years with MoDOT?

A: I'll give you three. In the late '80s and early '90s I was able to move to Jefferson City and be the construction engineer on the second Missouri River bridge. I'd set a goal for myself when I was a kid that I'd be involved in building a bridge like that one day. So I've stood on the bottom of the Missouri River in a coffer dam, and I've walked the steel on that bridge and I got to do that in my first 10 years on the job. It's just one of those things that's special to me. The practical design philosophy is probably the second one. This has the potential to change our business across the nation. No. 3 is just the people. The MoDOT folks and the folks in Missouri I've met and been able to have been associated with. There have been so many great people, it's hard not to include them as one of the most special things of your career.

Q: What are MoDOT's biggest challenges right now?

A: Our biggest challenge is singular. It is making the case to Missourians and Americans, to our country, that we have to invest more money in our infrastructure. It's really the word "invest." All of our studies say that for every $1 we spend on transportation infrastructure, it returns $4 to our economy. If we don't do that, 10 years from now we're going to be in a situation where we can't. It's a difficult message to have in an environment where everyone is holding out the banner of no new taxes. But there is no free road. The day we fix one, it starts getting worse again the next day. This is not just an issue of Missouri, and it's not just an issue of roads. Our infrastructure in our country is crumbling. Our grandfathers fixed this. They built the interstate system, they put this stuff in place. All we're doing right now is using it. We're not setting our selves up for our children and grandchildren for our infrastructure to be an asset for them. We're setting it up for it to be a liability for them. The average age of a bridge in Missouri is 44 years old. They're designed to last 50 and there's 10,000 of them. This is not a new issue, but we've deferred increasing our investment in infrastructure for so long in this country that we're close to crisis mode.

Q: What would be your preferred vehicle to raise more money for Missouri infrastructure projects?

A: It's too early to have a specific solution, but there are some directions we know. We're probably not going to try to increase the fuel tax, at least at the state level. We think that might happen at the national level. Mostly because we need to diversify. Most of our income now comes from fuel tax, and as we look down the road with new, more fuel efficient standards from the federal government and electric cars coming, we need to get a diversified income stream. So those folks who drive an electric car can help pay that. Right now probably the easiest way to do that is some form of sales tax.

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