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Life in the fast lane agrees with UDOT’s youthful leader

SHARE Life in the fast lane agrees with UDOT’s youthful leader

If a shy and unassuming teenager named Tom Warne had foreseen his own future, he would have cringed.

The thought that a whole state, an entire industry, literally thousands of important people would one day be watching his every move might have sent him into shock.In those days, Warne was so bashful and reserved he asked his older brother to go with him on his first date, fearing he wouldn't know what to say. As an undergraduate at Brigham Young University, Warne blended into the crowd so well that one of his favorite professors doesn't remember having him in a class.

But that was then. Now, at age 41, Warne is one of the most visible government administrators in Utah. The executive director of the state Department of Transportation is under tremendous scrutiny, both here and across the country, because of one of the most ambitious undertakings in U.S. public transportation history - the reconstruction of I-15 in Salt Lake County.

The $1.59 billion project is known as the largest public road construction project in America ever to use the design-build method, a plan-as-you-go strategy applied more often for smaller public projects and in the private sector. The primary advantage of design-build is that it speeds up construction, putting motorists onto new roads or back onto old ones years earlier than with traditional construction methods.

State transportation departments throughout the country are waiting to see how Warne's department and its lead contractors handle the massive rebuilding project. If it works, those agencies could start using design-build on big road jobs of their own, saving their taxpayers both money and inconvenience.

But if there are problems with I-15, others could shy away from design-build. A failure here could rob the entire public transportation field of a potentially revolutionary tool.

As if that's not enough pressure, Warne's career and the political future of the man who hired him also hinge on the success of I-15 reconstruction. If there are too many delays, too many complaints from motorists, an escalation of costs or a breakdown in the design-build program, Warne could witness a quick plummet to his meteoric rise in the profession.

And it could cost Gov. Mike Leavitt an election.

"Tom and I have talked about the fact that we both have a great deal riding on this and it needs to be done well," said Leavitt, who appointed Warne in May of 1995. "And I don't know of a person in the country that I would feel more comfortable with in shepherding a project of this importance."

One would expect the governor to speak highly of his own appointee, but the respect Warne has garnered in two years on the job is far-reaching. Legislators, local government officials, contractors and employees alike seem genuinely enamored with the former deputy director of Arizona's transportation department.

"The more I get to know him, the better I like the gentleman," said Sen. John P. Holmgren, R-Bear River City, co-chairman of the Utah Legislature's Interim Transportation Committee.

The Legislature struggled this year to develop a funding scheme for I-15 reconstruction and other projects included in the governor's $2.8 billion, 10-year highway improvement program. Lawmakers directed pointed questions at Warne during the session, often demanding quick explanations to complex issues.

With his childhood shyness obviously behind him, Warne impressed legislators with his poise and demeanor, his knowledge and expertise. Not once has Holmgren heard a negative word about Warne or the job he has done.

"If you ask him a question he gets you an answer. It isn't put off," said the senator. "I think the public can be really pleased with the way he's handled the department and it just keeps getting better."

One innovation lawmakers particularly liked was Warne's commitment to trim $20 million a year from UDOT's operations budget for the next 10 years, saving a total of $200 million that can be used instead to fund road construction.

"He's kind of like the pitcher that singled in a run to win the game," Leavitt said. "He not only was there to pitch but he also helped us figure a way to finance (highway construction) by getting the agency more efficient. He's contributing his own solutions."

Warne has received praise from various corners for other management decisions and abilities he's demonstrated:

- His willingness to stand behind the design-build concept, proposed by consultants, as a way to complete I-15 reconstruction before the 2002 Winter Olympic Games.

- A reorganization and continual evaluation of UDOT personnel. Employees are placed where they can have the greatest benefit, increasing UDOT's efficiency.

"While they were continually looking for new people and more people (before Warne's arrival), he went back and better used the ones they had," Holmgren said. "The department right now doesn't have any more people than when he came and yet they're getting tremendous amounts of work done."

- Balancing the five-year statewide transportation improvement program so that projects are completed when promised.

- His diplomacy and public relations tact. Local government officials and business leaders say Warne has gone out of his way to communicate with them and include them in the state transportation process.

"That's the format a person needs to follow," said Salt Lake County commissioner Brent Overson, who sees a marked contrast between Warne and recently axed Utah Transit Authority general manager John Pingree. Many of the complaints about Pingree stem from his apparent inability to relate well to community leaders.

Warne demonstrates equal savvy with the news media, promptly returning calls and making himself more available than the typical state administrator. Under Warne, public information about UDOT projects has been more accessible.

- His experience and belief in the concept of "partnering," a method of communication and problem-solving in which a state and its contractors agree to follow certain guidelines to avoid expensive legal disputes and delays in projects.

The concept was introduced in Arizona earlier this decade by Chuck Cowan, an engineer who eventually served as Warne's boss as head of ADOT. But Warne's implementation of the process drew national attention, prompting a request in '93 from the American Society of Civil Engineers for Warne to write a book on the subject.

"I didn't quit my day job," Warne joked. "But I did write the book and it gave me a good feeling that maybe I've helped influence the industry in some way.

"When I was a project engineer out there in the field in Arizona, we were taught that you weren't representing the state unless you jerked the contractor around and did some pretty mean things to them. You had to show who was in charge. What it did was create a pretty hostile environment.

"We were fighting with the contractors and we thought we were representing our owner, the government, in the best way. But when you sit down with a contractor, what you find is they want the same thing you want. Everybody wants safe jobs, wants it done on time, within budget - everybody wants to be successful. So when you sit down with a contractor, a light comes on. Then you say, `Why can't we all work together to make this happen?' "

The partnering strategy will figure prominently in the reconstruction of I-15.

Val Staker, president of Staker Paving and Construction Co. Inc., of North Salt Lake, saw firsthand how well partnering worked while Warne was deputy director in Arizona.

"We have done highway work in the Arizona market and all the Western states for some years, but Arizona was a very difficult place to do business. It was a very adversarial relationship with the department and private industry," Staker said.

"Over a period of two or three years, (partnering) totally turned around that department in terms of its relationship with contractors. It made it a much better place to do business and saved the taxpayers of Arizona a great deal of money" because costly lawsuits were avoided.

Staker was so impressed with Warne and his use of partnering that in 1992, while serving on a search committee to find a new UDOT chief, he recommended Warne for the state's top position despite Warne's comparatively young age: 36.

Leavitt, aware of ADOT's achievements through his own business dealings in Arizona, had serious discussions with Warne. But Warne took himself out of the running, partly because ADOT was then without a director and because it wasn't the best time for his wife and six children to pull up stakes.

Warne, feeling the political climate in Arizona was such that he would never be appointed director there, thought he had passed up the opportunity of a lifetime.

"You don't get offered these jobs twice," he said. "That just doesn't happen, so I was surprised and pleased that they called back a couple of years later."

The job became available for Warne when Craig Zwick left to take a leadership position within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Warne and his family settled down in South Jordan, not far from the home of his brother Richard - the same brother who served as chaperon on that first date. His parents, Tom and Terry Warne, are moving here from California this summer.

"I am really, really fortunate here at UDOT," Warne said. "We have some outstanding people and I think I get too much credit for what's happening here. I look around and see that people are doing great things and there is great untapped potential at the department. My job is to tap that potential and let people do what they're capable of doing."

Although a younger Warne might have denied it, Utah's transportation chief seems to be doing exactly what he was meant to do - and in the place he was meant to do it.

Raised in Hawaii as a member of the LDS Church, Warne's faith and his connection to his mother's Morgan County roots were steadfast. There was never a question that he, like three of his five siblings, would attend BYU.

Nor was there a doubt about his passion for building roads and his capacity to succeed.

Terry Warne remembers how Tom and Richard would build miniature highway systems in the sand underneath the carport of their home in suburban Honolulu. For his Eagle Scout project, Warne surveyed hundreds of local residents about whether they wanted lights along a stretch of nearby highway.

"Everybody wanted lights, so he wrote letters to the highway department and the mayor and the governor and all the legislators with his findings," his mother recalled. "The highway department said they didn't have enough money to do it, but the next year they allocated the money and they did put lights on the highway."

Warne's career path was shaped, too, by Don Austin, the first civil engineer Warne ever met. Austin served as Warne's LDS bishop during his formative years, from 1965-71. Austin, now retired in Arizona, remembers Warne as "an outstanding Boy Scout" and a "more than serious young man."

The family moved on to California's Bay Area, where Warne graduated from high school in 1973. He attended BYU on both academic and ROTC scholarships, serving an LDS mission in Spain before graduating in 1979. He met his future wife, Renae, at BYU. They were married in 1978.

"He was an outstanding student. He's a very, very qualified young man," said Don Budge, a BYU engineering professor who does recall Warne's quiet presence in his classroom. "You hardly noticed him in a class, but when you tallied everything up he was one of the top students."

After graduating, Warne served as a company commander in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, supervising road projects and other construction jobs.

In 1983 he moved on to Arizona, where his wife's family lives, and a job with the ADOT. While working there, he earned a master's degree in civil engineering from Arizona State University.

By the time Larry Bonine took over as ADOT's chief 10 years later, Warne had risen to the rank of deputy director and chief operating officer. He was essentially running the department and continued to do so until he left for Utah, Bonine said.

"He's my hero," said Bonine, who remains as ADOT's chief. "He takes personal mastery to a new level. He balances not only his job but his family, his spiritual underpinnings, his health. He's able to balance it better than anybody I've ever seen. He works incredible hours and yet he coaches his kids' soccer teams, and when he was down here he was a bishop."

Warne works 60-hour weeks and at times travels across the country. He often stays up late or rises early and works from his home computer or laptop, preserving as much time as possible for his family. He tries to coach at least one of his kids' T-ball, soccer or basketball teams each season.

"He's a family man, just a real good guy," said Sue Atkinson, one of the Warnes' neighbors when they lived in the Phoenix suburb of Glendale. "They're very community oriented, too.

"We'd like them to move back."

That appears unlikely.

Warne is one of the youngest transportation chiefs in the country, if not the youngest. Last year he earned $97,695, including a car allowance and taxable benefits.

Not bad for a shy kid who rarely spoke up.

"He was extremely shy all through his high school years," his mother said. "Now he talks to everybody. I tell people, `don't worry if your kids are shy.' He worked his way out of it."

Warne, though, is easily embarrassed when discussions focus on him instead of his work. He insists he's still shy. The transition from a chair behind the drafting table to a throne before the public eye, it is apparent, has been gradual and dependent on many teachers.

Although Warne and the I-15 project are headline news, some neighbors and parents of the youth teams he coaches don't know what he does for a living. And Warne likes it that way. A job, after all - even a very high-profile one - is just a job. Warne knows what's most important to him.

"Larry Bonine uses the example that you're juggling three or four balls. Three of the four are made out of glass and one is made out of rubber," Warne said. "One of those glass balls is your family and if you drop it, it breaks. The rubber one is your job.

"There may be a lot going on in your life, but you've got to make time for your family."