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Don Hillis: Coordinating the Troops in an Ambitious Bridge Effort

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Contractors recall how Don Hillis, assistant chief engineer for the Missouri Dept. of Transportation, often would point to a big sign he had installed in a meeting room. The inscription: "Be bold."

"He would point to his sign and inform all contract teams to push the MoDOT project team, indicating, 'If your proposal ideas don't make us uncomfortable, we won't learn anything,' " says Harry Koenigs, area manager for KCU, a joint venture of Kiewit Infrastructure Group, Traylor Bros. and United Contractors, including HNTB and the LPA Group as designers. KCU completed a $487-million design-build project that included 544 bridges, out of a total of 802 that were replaced or repaired in less than four years as part of MoDOT's Safe and Sound program.

HILLIS

Accomplishing this statewide $685-million feat without busting a budget or losing public goodwill required a cast of all-stars on all sides. Former ENR newsmaker Pete Rahn first proposed the ambitious effort as MoDOT director, envisioning a public-private partnership. "We had a contract team selected and were negotiating the finer points," recalls Hillis. "But then the economy crashed. We had to abandon that model."

The MoDOT team came up with the plan for one design-build contract and a series of design-bid-build jobs. After Rahn left, he passed the baton and the position to chief engineer Kevin Keith, while Hillis became the liaison to the contractors.

"Don attended nearly every confidential procurement meeting, where he maintained steady engagement while empowering his project team," says Koenigs. "During the design phase, our team challenged some of the standard MoDOT design practices. Don saw the global benefit of considering more efficient methods to achieve the same results."

Hillis says the process was rewarding. "I learned a lot. We had great people associated with the project. My job was to move roadblocks out of their way," he notes. His openness to ideas reflects his 29 years of MoDOT experience, working in the traffic division, planning, maintenance and operations—and he was on MoDOT's first scuba-diving inspection team. But the Safe and Sound program "is the capstone of my career to date," he says.

 

 

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