• Alexander Burkart

The Real Story Behind The $700M I-70 Mississippi River Bridge & The Woman Who Led the Way

How many people do you know who, when thrust into complexity, are not afraid to

challenge the status quo and willfully add to their own plate because it’s simply the right thing to do?


That’s Mary Lamie in summary. What I love about Mary most is she is incredibly humble and down to earth, yet has this insatiable drive to keep solving more and more massively complex problems. Below are some of the takeaways from our conversation this past August.

You spent 22+ years with IDOT, now you are the Executive Vice President of Multimodal Enterprises at Bi-State Development and responsible for the St. Louis Regional Freightway, Gateway Arch Trams and Riverboats, and St. Louis Downtown Airport. If we made a movie of your life, what would make the highlight reel, and which actress would play you?


If they made a movie, it would be the real story behind the $700M I-70 Stan Musial Veterans Memorial Bridge project, but not the one most would probably think of.


To the outside looking in, building a bridge probably doesn’t seem much different than your typical interstate highway project. Sure, it’s significantly more complicated from an engineering standpoint. You’re building a bridge across a major river, which takes a significant degree of precision, skill, and engineering expertise. And yes, the economic developer in me recognizes how it creates another crucial connection between Illinois and Missouri, one that elevates the region's connectivity and ability to serve an ever growing logistics and distribution freight hub.


But, the story I would tell is a bi-state region raising the bar for diversity and achieving a goal through complexity, hard work, change and responsibility. Consider the players involved, the lay of the land and the pieces you are contending with. The project is a nationally significant primary east-west interstate river bridge crossing that connects Southwestern Illinois to Downtown St. Louis. The project is bi-state, multi-jurisdictional, cross–sector with diverse and cultural populations. With the support of two governors, two federal highway administration divisions, elected and community leaders, we spent eight years securing funding and preparing engineering plans, and the most impactful deliverable was workforce and contractor inclusion of women and minorities.


So, on one end, you have to ensure everyone stays on the same page, while orchestrating the right moves at the right time over the course of eight years. On the other end is the actual execution piece.


Federally funded, the project included U.S. Department of Labor workforce and U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) contractor requirements for Disadvantaged Business Enterprises (DBEs), but the reality of the situation was the workforce and the contracting industry was not ready for one of the region’s largest infrastructure projects and, if nothing changed, the goals would be just goals.


DBEs are for-profit small businesses where socially and economically disadvantaged individuals own at least a 51% interest and also control management and daily business operations. African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, Asian-Pacific and Subcontinent Asian Americans, and women are presumed to be socially and economically disadvantaged. Other individuals can also qualify as socially and economically disadvantaged on a case-by-case basis. (www.transportation.gov)

Wanting to make the most positive impact on the region's communities, both the Illinois and Missouri Departments of Transportation (IDOT and MoDOT) started by listening, meeting with community leaders and stakeholders to learn where we could create real change.


We split this particular challenge into three categories: straight-line wins that could be executed immediately, projects that would reap results within a two-year window, and initiatives that would create value for future generations.


It was easy to discover this was about start-up businesses, growing and expanding existing businesses, incumbent training programs and recruitment and training for access to new career paths for women and minority communities.


Quick wins with immediate benefits included new statewide programs that helped contractors with prompt payments, access to capital and opening an IDOT DBE office in the community. Two-year window efforts included workforce training and mentoring-protégé programs. Stakeholder committees and contractor networking events were scheduled throughout the year and each year. Long-term programs focused on introducing middle and high school students to construction, building trades and engineering career paths. These efforts included a summer school program in East St. Louis, Ill., and a paid pre-pre apprenticeship program.


At the end of the day, women workers had performed 10% of the construction work hours on the main span, exceeding the 6.9% U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) goal, and minority workers performed 23% of construction work hours on the main span, exceeding the 14.7% DOL goal.

I-70 Stan Musial Veterans Memorial Bridge

If you want to move a project of this magnitude forward, you need a lot more than funding; you need regional, business and community collaboration and recognition that real change requires a change in mind-set.


Oh, and in terms of who would play me in a movie? A very much younger Carol Burnette. She's a redhead, a leader in her industry, doesn’t take herself too seriously and would likely make this story and the DOL numbers much more entertaining.


You strike me as a no excuses creative problem solver. What complex problems are you taking on now as the head of the St. Louis Regional Freightway?


The short version: achieving sustainable infrastructure funding for the greater St. Louis region.


If you’re in the logistics industry, 20 – 25 years of back-to-back construction zones with sporadic funding for interstate corridors negatively impact freight movement efficiency and reliability, and just-in-time service. The ability to fund a complete logistics system or interstate corridor in one or multiple contracts over four to five years shortens construction delays, reduces impact on motorists and the freight industry, and reduces exposure of workers in work zones to traffic.


My other example isn’t necessarily complicated; it’s actually rather simple. The St. Louis Regional Freightway brings manufacturing and logistics industry leaders to the table along with IDOT and MoDOT to help set infrastructure priorities by helping understand how infrastructure and efficiency impacts on-time delivery and costs. Each year, we develop a Multimodal Priority Projects List to advocate support and funding for critical infrastructure improvements. It is compiled annually by the Freightway’s Freight Development Committee, which is nationally recognized by the USDOT and the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a model of private/public partnership across the eight county greater St. Louis area. Recent wins have included $600M in funding for portions of the below bi-state I-270 corridor and $222M for the 130-year old Merchants Bridge over the Mississippi River.

Beyond that, growing awareness of the St. Louis region as a global logistics and freight hub is also up there. From promoting our access to six of the seven Class-I railroads and the efficiencies of our robust port system that have garnered us recognition as the Ag Coast of America, to the access we provide to international airfreight and excellent interstate connectivity, it is all about making sure major population centers, shippers and carriers throughout the world recognize the region’s competitive edge and role in the global supply chain. We capture those advantages under the umbrella slogan of “One Location, Global Access.”


Tell me about the times you were thrown into the deep end in your career or life and how you adapted? Did you simply progress into managing a $1.7B budget and more people, or were there parts of your career where you jumped a few miles up and into a significant level of responsibility? How did you adapt?


Each new job I’ve taken on was outside my comfort zone, something new and challenging, and with my current Freightway responsibilities. I am very appreciative of the support and confidence of my previous and current supervisor as well as the Bi-State Development Board of Commissioners. What has continued to make the difference with each of my career advancements has been co-workers, supervisors or industry leaders who have been a sponsor of my abilities. A sponsor is different than a mentor. Mentors give you advice; sponsors help champion your next move, promote your abilities, and can advocate for a promotion or new project or additional responsibility. My sponsors have included many IDOT supervisors and co-workers, industry leaders I met through business and community organizations like the Leadership Council Southwestern Illinois, the Belleville Chamber of Commerce and USDOT committees and workforce development efforts. They have all made a significant impact on my career and I am committed to helping others in the same fashion.


Was there ever a time in your career where you experienced imposter syndrome? If yes, what did you do to overcome it?


Absolutely, yes.


Regardless of your age or experience, there is always room for growth and new experiences. We all trip and fall, and knowing you have the skills, confidence and knowledge to rebound and get back up is important. For me, it took time to recognize my wins and opportunities were more than luck but rather the results of my qualifications, motivation and hard work.


How has a failure, or apparent failure, set you up for later success? Do you have a "favorite failure" of yours?


The I-70 Stan Musial Veterans Bridge community stakeholder meetings started out rough. Initially, I thought we would spend the first meeting understanding roles and responsibilities, purpose and setting goals. Community leaders were upset with past practices and past practices were events from a year ago to 55 years ago when the interstate was built. The first couple of meetings were heated and it took time to build trust, creditability, relationships, respect and to find new ways of doing business. This experience and lessons learned continue to help me with new challenges and reinforce the importance of listening, understanding other viewpoints and respect.


Why did you pursue engineering? Is there anything specific you can point to?


My dad always told me we can’t predict the future and there may be a point time where I may need to provide for my family by myself. He said I needed to pick a career that I enjoyed, but could provide for a family. I enjoyed math and science classes in high school and with my dad’s advice, engineering was a great fit.


I appreciate the support and guidance of Belleville East High School and Belle Valley Grade School and the many programs that existed at that time to support young women in STEM, paving the way for my career in transportation. It’s important to note that fortunately, I have always had shared responsibilities with my husband raising our two sons, but my dad was a rock star for providing this advice.


What is the book (or books) you've given most as a gift, and why?

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

I haven’t given this book as a gift, but the one I read most recently and would recommend is:

"The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" by Rebecca Skloot.


It’s about the medical industry in the mid-1950’s making medical history using cancer cells of Henrietta Lacks without her knowledge and without compensation to her family. It’s about race, ethics, medicine, and faith. When we talk about addressing past medical injustices, especially in today’s COVID-19 environment, this publication provides a glimpse to understanding other experiences that still influence our nation.


If you had the resources to solve a single local, regional, and/or global problem, what would you tackle and why?


That’s easy; I’d figure out how we can do a better job with workforce development, specifically throughout the greater St. Louis Region. A key component of the St. Louis Regional Freightway’s mission is to support and expand manufacturing, logistics, and related industries, and without a diverse, robust and resilient workforce, our ability to significantly move the needle for economic development is limited. We’re ahead of the curve for making transformational progress, but we still have a lot more work to do.

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