Thomas D. Larson, the guiding force whose vision and persistence transformed Pennsylvania�s corrupt and stagnating transportation program into a national model of efficiency, professionalism and innovation, died July 20 in State College. He was 77. The exact cause of death is unclear, but it is believed related to complications from a 2004 head injury. Larson was named ENR�s Man of the Year in 1982 for his efforts to revitalize the state Dept. of Transportation, while serving as secretary.
Larson inherited a highway program in 1979 that was languishing from neglect, underfinancing, poor management and low morale. In his first three years as secretary, he tripled the state�s highway construction budget and saved millions of dollars through productivity and contracting changes and design and construction innovation. Larson�s efforts boosted PennDOT�s image to the state and across the U.S.
�There was no construction, no maintenance. There were 15,000 employees consuming a payroll of $300 million and doing nothing.� Larson told ENR in 1982. A former civil engineering professor at Penn State University, he was tapped by then-Gov. Richard Thornburgh (R) to take on a new role in public service and stayed at PennDOT until 1987. Larson previously worked for Bethlehem Steel Corp. and the Navy Civil Engineering Corps, the predecessor agency to the Naval Facilities Engineering Command. He earned three civil engineering degrees from Penn State.
Larson wrested control of state highway maintenance away from corrupt local politicians and was instrumental in getting federal highway aid to Pennsylvania for the first time.
Although a natural leader, Larson was not the typical politician. He �was very approachable and always had elements of an educator,� says Jim Scheiner, former PennDOT deputy secretary under Larson who is now chairman of Benatec Associates Inc., a New Cumberland, Pa., engineering firm. �He always focused on getting the job done, but never on taking credit for it. He was incredible at teamwork, especially with people who wouldn�t work well together.�
After leaving state politics, Larson joined the administration of President George H.W. Bush as head of the Federal Highway Administration. In that role, he helped orchestrate passage of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA), which set in place $155 billion in highway financing.
Thornburgh, now an attorney with Kirkpatrick & Lockhart LLP, Washington, D.C., had nothing but praise for the man who made his state transportation policy goals a reality. Larson was a �giant�in every respect as a teacher, public servant and genuine good guy to friends and family,� the ex-governor wrote in an email.
Funeral Services will be held on July 24 at Grace Lutheran Church in State College at 2PM.