It was an offer in the engineering world that Ed Toavs couldn’t refuse.
Toavs (say “Taves”) will retire Friday after 25 years with the Montana Department of Transportation, the last seven as Missoula District administrator, to help give the largest engineering firm in the United States a presence in Montana and the Inland Northwest.
He starts June 3 with Jacobs Engineering Group, which leaped into the top spot last year according to two industry publications. That came after the 2017 acquisition of CH2M, a company Montana and the Inland Northwest are more familiar with.
“This has been a great job,” Toavs said Tuesday in MDT’s Missoula office on West Broadway. “I’m not leaving the department because I don’t like my job. I enjoy my position. I enjoy building relationships and building projects for the communities in western Montana.”
Jacobs is based in Dallas, Texas, with a regional office in Bellevue, Washington. Its worldwide annual revenue soared from $10 billion to nearly $15 billion in fiscal year 2018, according to U.S. Security Exchange Commission records.
The company came knocking late last year.
“My wife Tracy’s cousin and his wife work for Jacobs Engineering in Seattle,” Toavs said. “They had a staff meeting and said they were interested in looking at Montana and doing some growth as part of their Northwest Region.”
Tracy’s cousin suggested they look at Toavs. He met with Jacobs recruiters in Missoula in February, and came away duly impressed. A trip to Bellevue only solidified the notion that Jacobs was a progressive company with an emphasis on building relationships.
Toavs will work out of his home in Frenchtown until something more is established. He and Tracy have daughters in college in Great Falls and Seattle; son David, a sophomore at Frenchtown, and daughter Becca in seventh grade.
He’ll be a vice president and group leader for this part of the Northwest, Toavs said. That includes not only Montana but Idaho, South Dakota, North Dakota and Wyoming.
Born and raised in Columbia Falls, Toavs’ retirement comes 25 years and a day after he started working for the state transportation department.
He started in Kalispell in 1994 as a temporary technician on a construction crew and was eventually promoted to a full-time civil engineer in the Flathead. He and Tracy Erickson married in 1997.
In 2002 Toavs took the job as MDT’s assistant district construction engineer in Great Falls, working under Doug Wilmot, the current district administrator there.
“Ed’s a really energetic and enthusiastic person,” Wilmot said Tuesday. “He’s one of those that was willing to jump in and do any job. Just a really good resource for us to have. We’re going to miss him.”
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In Great Falls Toavs worked on modeling for software for a 7-mile bypass south of 10th Avenue. It turned out too expensive a project for the state to consummate, but bore remarkable similarities to one that was — the $140 million Highway 93 bypass around downtown Kalispell that was completed in late 2016.
He was also on a team that developed the design-build concept at MDT, which expedites projects by allowing both phases to proceed simultaneously.
Toavs left his family in Great Falls to spend two years as acting construction engineer in the Glendive District. In 2009 he landed back in Kalispell as the Missoula District construction engineer, a position Bob Vosen currently holds. Toavs said Vosen will take his place as acting district administrator until a permanent one is named.
“A super-busy time,” Toavs said of his three years back in Kalispell.
He spearheaded development of the south half of the Kalispell Bypass and finished Highway 93 projects at Evaro and Arlee, the last projects to date of the Evaro-to-Polson corridor.
His years in Missoula since 2012 have included working with civic and government entities in the Flathead to complete the north end of the Kalispell Bypass, and what that led to.
At the urging of MDT administrators in Helena, Toavs took two years of executive masters-level business classes at the University of Idaho. There he worked with an assistant economics professor on an impact analysis of the bypass. Toavs graduated first in his class in 2017 and his work revealed a $1.21 billion boon to the Flathead economy with the bypass.
“I guess I would look at that as the single biggest highlight of my professional career, seeing the bypass finished and the work done on the MBA,” said Toavs. “That’s something I’m probably the most proud of because it was a team effort. It wasn’t an Ed Toavs effort.”
Collaboration comes up time and again in a conversation with Toavs.
It helps explain how the city and MDT came up with a quick fix when the Madison Street Bridge sprouted holes. And it helped wade through a morass of hurdles to get dirt moved on the ongoing Russell Street Bridge project. He lauds his working partnership with Mayor John Engen, with whom Toavs said he’s had “a lot of visionary discussions.”
“From my perspective, Ed’s leadership helped whatever powers that be recognize that public information communicated locally about road projects was not MDT’s strong point, and he began contracting with Big Sky Public Relations, which has worked brilliantly,” said Ginny Merriam, the city’s communications officer. “It’s been a great help for the public and has certainly made my job easier in the realm of road projects.”
Toavs is leaving plenty of MDT projects in the Missoula District, but said that doesn’t mean he won’t be consulting on them with Jacobs Engineering.
“One of the things I’m most pleased about leaving the position is we have good relationships with all the counties in western Montana,” he said. “Specifically we have good relationships in the Missoula area, in the Kalispell-Flathead area and with (Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribes). We don’t have a tenuous relationship out there.”