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Agency banks on storied engineer

His reputation stands on a fabled response to a tanker crash. His agency's future rides on the Selmon Expressway.

Published November 12, 2004

TAMPA - It was a horrific accident by any definition.

A tanker on Interstate 75 near Venice careened across both lanes, tumbled off the Salt Creek Bridge and exploded, killing the driver and destroying the bridge. Under normal circumstances, it would have taken nine to 12 months to clean up the 1996 accident and replace the bridge.

A Florida Department of Transportation team did the job in 18 days.

That's how Ralph Mervine made his reputation.

The man who was then director of operations for District 1 of the state Department of Transportation headed the team that did such a quick turnaround on the bridge that Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay made an appearance at the opening to say congratulations.

Now Mervine has a much bigger bridge on his hands. The 53-year-old civil engineer was appointed Monday as the interim executive director of the Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority to oversee the salvage of the $350-million elevated lanes of the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway.

The first question Mervine took from a reporter Thursday was, "Are you nuts?"

"I hope not," he said with a smile.

It is a job Mervine (pronounced MER-vin) clearly relishes and one for which he is a perfect fit, according to those who know him.

"It's a good situation for him and for the authority," said Sen. Jim Sebesta, R-St. Petersburg and chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee.

Mervine thinks so, too.

"This is what I do well, and this is what I enjoy doing," Mervine said in an interview. ". . . I'm particularly well-suited for situations where things haven't gone the way you hoped they might."

That certainly is true of the Selmon Expressway, where a support column sank 11 feet in April, leading to the discovery of problems with as many as 50 more.

But Mervine does not think of this job as his new life's work. Where Pat McCue, the former executive director fired Nov. 1, was considered a visionary in terms of seeing imaginative and innovative ways to meet local transportation needs, Mervine says his vision is nuts-and-bolts engineering and construction.

"This is certainly a career move for me in that it will be good for me if it goes well," he said. "But in terms of staying long-term to deliver other projects, there may be a better use for my services."

Long-term is something the Expressway Authority might not have. The staff is under a Nov. 22 deadline to deliver a plan acceptable to DOT to finance up to $50-million in repairs to the 6-mile elevated bridge, as well as a plan to re-engineer as many as 50 defective support columns.

The penalty for failure could be a move in the Legislature as early as an anticipated special session in December to dismantle the agency and give the project to Florida's Turnpike Enterprise.

The ramifications for Tampa and Hillsborough County are considerable.

Last year, the Expressway Authority collected more than $25-million in tolls, money spent inside Hillsborough County on Tampa and Hillsborough road projects.

"Local control is a good thing," said Gary Brosch, chairman of the Center for Transportation Research at the University of South Florida. "You can decide on what to do and when to do it, set tolls, and if it's a moneymaker, decide where to reinvest the capital."

If the Turnpike Enterprise takes over the Selmon Expressway, the toll revenue could be spent anywhere in the state. On the other hand, the Turnpike could borrow to fix and complete the project more cheaply than the Expressway Authority.

But Mervine said the politics, the economics and, indeed, the future of the Expressway Authority do not concern him. "The authority members will deal with the political issues," he said. "My job is to show we can lead a technical team to move the project forward."

To take the authority job, Mervine had to resign last Monday as project director for Global Rail Consortium, one of two international groups vying to become the state's bullet train contractor.

The High Speed Rail Authority rejected GRC's proposal last year, but on Monday, it was back on the table, perhaps even favored over the competition, because its financing plan seems to resolve some of the rail's more controversial problems.

"So I resign effective Monday morning, and by Monday afternoon, Global Rail is alive again," Mervine said. "You don't suppose there's a connection?"

Global Rail's new life notwithstanding, a former colleague there says Mervine is positioned now right where he should be.

"He's got a tremendous engineering and construction background, and he's a big-picture guy," said Katherine Beck, Global Rail's managing member. "When he gets on a project, he's very focused. He's like a bulldog. Our partners are all around the world. We're talking to Korea and Japan and Germany at 2 in the morning, and he's always there."

Mervine, a jovial lifelong bachelor, says he knew at the age of 8, when his father used to take him around the rail yards in Richmond, Va., what he wanted to do when he grew up.

"Does that sound weird, that I knew at 8 I wanted to be a civil engineer?" he said.

He never wavered from the goal. His first job was on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, and subsequent jobs took him to Iraq, Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan and India.

Being a troubleshooter is stressful, he said, and his escape is the Ocala National Forest, where he has a home and likes to hike.

"I love nature and the outdoors, so I go to the woods," Mervine said. "The worst thing that can happen to you in a job like this is stress. For some reason, when I see that sign that says Ocala National Forest, I can feel the stress drain away."

[Last modified November 12, 2004, 00:30:26]

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