He was more at home in the hallways of Penn State University than on the highways of Pennsylvania; however, Dr. Thomas D. Larson taught the government a lesson while becoming the savior of PennDOT.
Thomas Larson was born on September 28, 1928, in Philipsburg, Pennsylvania. He attended Penn State University where he earned bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in civil engineering. After Penn State, he attended Oklahoma State University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to further his studies. He then entered the United States Navy and served in the Navy Civil Engineering Corps. At the end of his enlistment, he returned to Penn State to be a professor.
In 1968, Dr. Larson co-founded and was named the first director of the Pennsylvania Transportation and Safety Center at Penn State. In later years, it would bear his name. Two years later, he would help create the new Department of Transportation.
In 1979, while at the center, Dr. Larson was tapped by Governor Thornburgh to be Secretary of Transportation. At the time, scandal and fiscal irresponsibility was abundant at PennDOT.
He put PennDOT on a budgetary “diet” after inheriting $2.4 billion in debt from previous administrations, and placed the department on a “pay-as-you-go” basis. With slight increases, the gas tax rose five years in a row. Pennsylvania went from number 50 to number 1 in federal money it received. The debt racked up in the 1960s and 1970s would not have to burden another generation of taxpayers and vehicle owners.
“The department was a disaster when he took over,” said Bill Green, Dr. Larson’s press secretary for three years. “The place was broke. People were going to jail. Maintenance sheds were hiring halls for politicians. There was no sense of planning.”
Dr. Larson promised “a dollar’s worth of service for every dollar collected.” He delivered, and because so, he had bipartisan support in the Legislature and across the state.
He changed the way PennDOT repaired roads. Other than in winter emergencies, they no longer use the “dump and run” patch method, but instead crews square and dig out the hole, then drain, fill, roll, and seal, so the patch doesn’t disintegrate in a day. Dr. Larson ended the “election special” paving projects, with inch-thick asphalt that lasted until the next vote. He placed emphasis on drainage, sealing, and other maintenance procedures still in use today.
His administration solved decades of indecision, controversy, and politics to finish projects such as building Interstates 279 and 579 and rebuilding the Penn-Lincoln Parkway East “from the ground up,” as he said.
As a commissioner of the Turnpike Commission, Dr. Larson advocated raising truck weights from 72,380 to 80,000 pounds gross vehicle weight to aid commerce, and pushing for construction of the Amos K. Hutchinson Bypass and James E. Ross Highway.
After his time as savior of PennDOT, he was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to head the Federal Highway Administration, where he shaped the landmark Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) of 1991. In 1992, he returned to Centre County and a year later was named to the board of Michael Baker Corporation.
Dr. Larson passed away in State College on July 20 at the age of 77. His family believes it was due to complications from a head injury suffered in 2004.
We at Pennsylvania Highways offer our deepest sympathies to his friends and family. We also offer our thanks to Dr. Larson for the work he did in the field of transportation. He truly was the savior of PennDOT.
Getting Around: Tom Larson Led PennDOT Out of Politics, Potholes – Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Thomas D. Larson Biography – Penn State College of Engineering