YPT Mentor Interviews – Debra Johnson, Deputy COO of LA Metro, Talks to YPT

YPT National is pleased to present another installment in our YPT Mentor Interview series.  This week we talk to Debra A. Johnson, Deputy COO for the LA Metro. 

Debra has more than 20 years of diverse experience in the transportation industry. Ms. Johnson began her unconventional transportation career as a public participation specialist working in the private sector for an engineering consulting firm. She later transitioned into government relations and executive roles in public transit agencies.  Besides here current role at LA Metro, Debra has held varying positions with the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BART) the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA), the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) in Washington, D.C., and the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA). She is an alumna of the 2000 Class of Leadership San Francisco and the 2008 Eno Center for Transit Leadership’s Executive Development Program. Ms. Johnson is the immediate past President of the Northern California chapter of the Conference of Minority Transportation Officials (COMTO), an immediate past member of the California Transit Association’s Executive Committee, a member of the Women’s Transportation Seminar (WTS) and a member of Urban Habitat’s Board of Directors, in addition to Urban Habitat’s Board of Directors’ Finance Committee.

AP: Thanks again for your time, we here at YPT really appreciate this opportunity to talk to you.  How did you first get interested in transportation? 

DJ: It came to me through my interests in policy and public administration.  It just so happened that I had a job at an engineering consulting firm, and the project I was working on was in transportation.  Through that project I was first exposed to public transit.  I was involved in all the community relations and government relations work with different municipalities, neighborhood councils and stakeholder groups.  I had the chance to present issues in front of regulatory agencies and government bodies as well as other organizations that had regulatory oversight.  I clearly saw the nexus between transportation and the environment and it peaked my interest.  I’ve been doing transportation now going on 22 years.

AP: By industry definition you’re still considered young, and we here at YPT would definitely consider you one of our own.  How have you been able to create a sense of authority, be an expert in the subject matter and progress through your career so quickly?

DJ: I happened to work on some dynamic projects, work at some great agencies, and forge some great relationships.  I will always put my best foot forward.  Through some professional organizations I’ve been able to attend conferences and be part of leadership groups.  The first opportunity came when I was at BART, working in community relations.  There was a delegation being put together in the Bay Area to go to Sacramento where the State was considering taking away a ½ cent tax measure, which was a revenue stream for BART.  Another colleague was unable to make it.  I volunteered to attend in their place and was given the opportunity to present to Antonio Villaraigosa, Speaker of the California State Assembly at the time. When briefing the BART board on our findings, the board recognized that I could very much handle myself in a high-pressure situation.  It was a very lucky opportunity for me where I could showcase what I was capable of.  Through networking with peers and colleagues, I’ve been able to put together a “kitchen cabinet” of people across the industry.  I’ve been able to work with very dynamic people. There were lessons learned about what to do and what not to do.  That helped me put my best foot forward and take chances and be the risk taker in the way in which I could learn from past mistakes and leverage them on a go forward basis.

AP: In learning all these lessons yourself, was there any specific advice you received, so you didn’t have to necessarily experience your own mentor’s mistakes?  Anything you were able to take and run with?

DJ: I’m not a technical person, not an engineer, not a planner.  I’ve more or less come up the softer side through policy and government relations. An engineer I was working with told me “I may build the ‘thing’, but you have to sell the air it sits in.”  When I’m interacting with technical people who may not understand what someone from a communications background can contribute, I have to convince them of the importance of the administrative point-of-view.  When you’re building a massive infrastructure project such as the BART SFO extension, you have to keep in mind the ramifications of not doing everything to code and allowing deviations, how people like me can keep technical folks out of trouble.  When I’m interfacing with all the different contingencies, like the SF mayoral staff, or Sacramento, or interacting on Capitol Hill with our congressional delegation these are things that I can do for you so you can plan and design your project.  Being able to work with everyone and respecting each other and what their respective contributions are.  Whether it’s service delivery or building new projects, you have to have an understanding that one aspect of something, can not survive within itself. You have to have ancillary functions and sound policies that ensure the collective effort can forge ahead.

AP: The infrastructure is just the tactics, but the policies are the strategy that drives and incentives behavior.  A bus is a bus and train is a train, but what incentivizes different usage and behavior.

DJ: Exactly!  That’s the change I’m trying to affect daily.  Just because we used to always do something one way doesn’t mean that will work for today or tomorrow.  Why don’t we do it this new way?  Lets look at this and examine. Looking at the new authorization bill, it’s so imperative that we adhere to things we’re doing with our labor unions because of continuing resolutions in the labor code.  We are a public entity and not a profit organization. Are we doing anything that will have residual impacts based on our operational characteristics?

AP: You mentioned the “kitchen cabinet”?  Can you explain that further?

DJ: I adopted it from Bob Prince who was the first African American General Manager at MBTA in Boston and is currently with AECOM. I went to the Executive Leadership Transportation program through Eno.  While Mr. Prince was talking to my classmates, he mentioned that when you move up the food chain through a large bureaucracy, you’re the only one at the top and you won’t have a peer. It’s imperative that you create relationships through the industry.  You’ll need a large network of people you can go to outside the bureaucracy.  Taking that advice to heart I have made connections with colleagues who worked at other agencies, as well as colleagues on the private sector side. I can go to my “kitchen cabinet” and pull something down when needed.

I had to go to the “kitchen cabinet” just yesterday.  Here at LA Metro we had an incident in the very early hours of the morning.  I had to pull people together for immediate mitigation actions and assess what happened.  I reached out to my colleague who was COO at two major agencies.  I was able to do my due diligence with his input so we can come out of this and reduce the likelihood of a similar incident going forward.

AP: Over the course of your career what is the single project or task that you would consider the most significant accomplishment so far?

DJ: Coming from the Bay Area to work in DC for WMATA, I learned that their organizational structure was created by Congress, i.e. a multijurisdictional compact.  In California you have the Brown Act, sunshine laws, FOIA, etc.,  when I went to WMATA they did not have public comment at board meetings or committee meetings, no town hall meetings, no forums in which the actual constituents, could actively voice content or discontent for whatever program or service we were providing. I led the charge to have a voice for the general populace in regards to going to board meetings, having public comment, starting the first ever town hall meeting.  I developed a rider’s advisory council in conjunction with the Sierra club that still exists today.  The council members are appointed by representatives of their jurisdictions.  They represent the voice of the riders through VA, DC, and MD.

AP: What’s the biggest risk you’ve taken so far in your career?

DJ: Definitely moving across the country, working at different agencies and having to learn entirely different agency cultures. It’s hard to continue growing and not become complacent in your current role.  When I got a call about the job in DC, my friends and family warned me “You don’t know anybody!  You’re going somewhere without any family or friends” but it turned out well for me.  Just go!  Weigh the opportunity, especially if it’s an opportunity for promotion and increased responsibility.

AP: As part of this mentor series, can we post a picture of your workspace?

DJ: You got it.

AP: Thanks again for your time Debra, this has been great. 

DJ: Absolutely, anything I can do to pay it forward.

 DebraJ_photo

2013 T&DI Green Streets, Highways and Development Conference

The Transportation and Development Institute (T&DI) of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) is pleased to announce the 2nd T&DI Green Streets, Highways and Development Conference with the theme “Advancing the Practice”.
The 2nd T&DI Green Streets, Highways &Development (GSHD) Conference, which will be held November 3-6, 2013 in Austin, TX, will bring together engineers, contractors, planners, architects, landscape architects, private practitioners, government officials, academics and students to share information at the cutting edge of advancing the application of sustainability concepts in Transportation and Development. Building on the successes of 2010 T&DI Green Streets & Highways Conference, the 2013 GSHD Conference will offer cutting-edge applications of green, sustainability and livability concepts relevant to transportation and development infrastructure, services and education. Conference sessions will highlight best practices and successes with real-world design approaches, planning methodologies, progress evaluation tools, performance measurement and management approaches, policies and case studies — nationally and internationally.

Call for Submissions

The scientific and organizing committees of the 2013 T&DI Green Streets, Highways and Development Conference has extended the deadline for their call for submissions, and invite you to submit abstracts for presentations, papers or posters, and conference sessions (panel or paper presentations). Please click on the link below for more information. In particular, there is interest in the areas:

  • Climate Change Adaptation
  • Infrastructure Resiliency
  • Asset Management
  • Public Health
  • Multi-modal Development.

Submittals can be for research projects, case studies, etc. Please submit by February 15, 2013.
http://content.asce.org/conferences/greenstreets-highways2013/call.html

TRB Committee Interest Survey

As a supporter of the Young Professionals in Transportation, the Transportation Research Board (TRB) would like to take this opportunity to encourage young professionals to become involved in TRB standing committee activities by completing a brief online survey. View the TRB Committee page for more details on the various standing committees.

Please fill out and submit the Committee Interest Form by Friday, February 22, 2013, and TRB staff will communicate your interest to the relevant committee chairs. Your contact information will not be shared with anyone else. Please contact TRBTechnicalActivitiesDivision@nas.edu if you have any questions. Thank you!

YPT Mentor Interviews – Catherine Kibble of IDOT Talks to YPT

We here at YPT National are excited to bring our loyal readers the first in a series of interviews with transportation executives.  These consummate experts have served our community as mentors to countless young professionals in transportation, before there even was a YPT.  The first interview in our series is with Catherine Kibble, Design Consultant Services Section Chief, of the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT).

Catherine started her career at the IDOT in 1983 as a co-op student and after graduation in 1986 returned to District One full time.  Upon completion of the District’s initial training program she was assigned to the Bureau of Construction.  In 1993 she transferred out of the Bureau of Construction as a Resident Engineer, to become an In-House Project Manager in the Bureau of Programming.  She was promoted in 2000 to the Expressway Unit Engineer in the Bureau of Design, Consultant Services Section where her primary assignment was the Project Manager for the Kingery Expressway Reconstruction Project.  She was named District and Statewide Engineer of the Year in 2004, before being promoted to her current role.

AP: Thanks so much for doing this Catherine.  I know you’re extremely busy.  How did you first get interested in transportation?

CK: My first year at Marquette University I was accepted into engineering, but was undeclared in major.  My father was a mechanical engineer, which is why I was interested initially.  I had an excellent advisor who gave me loads of books and explained the different engineering fields and what each was about.  I quickly pared down the choices to mechanical and civil. I was very enamored of being able to point to a bridge and saying “I did that.”  The things that electrical and biotech engineers do are too small, and even with mechanical you ultimately become a component of something else entirely.  Civil was easy to explain and transportation was part of a massive system that served everyone daily. I always leaned towards transportation because of its reach.

AP: That sounds familiar.  I was also drawn to how tangible civil engineering was.  It was important to be able to touch, feel, and confirm what I saw.  Once you got into civil engineering and transportation, wow did you get your first job?

CK: I was a co-op.  It wasn’t a choice.  My father said “you will co-op”.  I didn’t know what that meant until I did it.  Marquette’s co-op program, similar to others, allows you to work for an employer for six months while receiving academic credits and a competitive salary. Co-op is typically performed the second semester of your junior year or either semester of your senior year.  The benefits are huge.  Some folks elect out of co-ops so they can graduate sooner.  In 1986 it was a difficult job market but those with co-op experience fared better because we had real world experience and interviewed well.  I worked for IDOT as a co-op and ended up coming back to work for them when I graduated.

AP: What single project or task would you consider the most significant accomplishment in your career so far? 

CK: I was selected to be the project manager when we reconstructed the Kingery Expressway.  I moved from planning to programming to design, was given a promotion, and brought in to specifically work on that project.  It was a wonderful experience.  We had 4 different consultants that were doing the engineering design work for a $460 million construction project.  It took about 4 years to construct.  It ended up being an awesome project to work on and the one I regularly go back to for lessons learned before starting new projects.

AP: Why do you think it worked so well?

CK: We had a great team, and a good approach towards the project.  We had the 4 consultants doing design work, and one was chosen as the project management consultant. On a day-to-day basis I was working with the PM firm on most things. We sat down at the beginning and created a comprehensive project plan that we largely stuck with.  We determined how we were going to handle work, e.g. questions form the designers, questions from contractors, etc.  We created a project website, which in 2001 was a big deal, that tracked everything of note.  I asked my boss at the time, who had worked on the earlier Stevenson Expressway reconstruction project, how did we do that without computers?  People used PC’s to do calculations but there was still no email at that time.  He boasted that he was the “Fax King”.  He would get a question from one firm and wanted to make sure everyone had the same answer.  Now I could do that by posting the answer to the website, but back in the day he would have to fax each consultant and confirm that they all got the same direction.  We did joke about how more questions were asked when we used the website versus the time of faxing, probably because people figured things out on their own, but our website approach worked really well, resulting in consistent design work.  Contractors saw consistent sets of plans with the same pay items, benchmarks, datums, etc.  We met monthly for almost the entire time until the final contracts were let.  When I run into all those people now, we actually miss those monthly meetings, believe it or not.  We genuinely missed each other when the program was over. With the exception of the people that work in your own office you don’t get to make the same kinds of connections like that.  I ran into someone from the program the other day and we joked how we needed to have a lunch reunion just to catch up.  That was really cool, that was the neatest thing about that project.  Working collaboratively, it really did go smooth.  I don’t know if that kind of experience could be had again since I haven’t worked on a big program like that since.  Working here at IDOT, it’s nice to work with people that you get along with.  In my section everyone has his or her own unique personalities, but we all get along really well.  Those reciprocal relationships make your job fun.  That’s what made the Kingery project so great, there really wasn’t a single jerk in the group, everyone was professional and genuine.

AP: There’s a book “The No Asshole Rule” by Prof. Bob Sutton that talks about how it’s better to work with people who are considerate even if they’re not as capable.  Assholes can be toxic and demoralizing.  No matter how “great” their superstar talent, they’ll eventually poison even the most successful cultures and alienate everyone. 

CK: That’s for sure.  It isn’t always just about your IQ.

AP: You’ve been at IDOT almost 30 years.  We have a lot of YPT folks who work for agencies.  What advice do you have for surviving politics?

CK: One of the nice things about IDOT is although there are very political elements to what we do (e.g. how jobs are funded, which jobs are prioritized) the engineering work is not affected.  IDOT’s culture is one of a professional approach.  New state administrations don’t result in a complete turnover of staff.  Politicization of project funding and prioritization happen no matter where you go.  The funding source can and will drive the politics of projects.  County and municipal politics can get more charged, but it’s important to know what you do and why you’re doing it.  That way you can effectively navigate most political issues.  For example, a local business owner may oppose a barrier median running down the middle of his block.  We have FHWA studies that show barrier medians are good for business, because it improves traffic flow and increases safety.  Being able to persuade the public with solid evidence, knowing what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, you can overcome any initial public opposition.

AP: What has proven most difficult about management?  Is it communication, people, perhaps managing expectations?  Is it just all the different personalities, what is it about managing projects and staff that’s proven most difficult?

CK: The fluctuation of available staff has been most difficult.  Our biggest challenge (in Illinois) right now is that our pension system is grossly underfunded so fewer people are working at the state.  As people have left we haven’t backfilled, so how do you get your same workload done and continue to deliver the program?  How do you complete the work with the staff you have?  We’ve had to hire consultants to backfill the staff in the short term until we can get to a point where we can hire permanent staff again.  Managing a short-handed staff and continuing to deliver the state program is probably the hardest thing.

Also, like most people, I don’t necessarily like to give public presentations, despite the nickname “Chatty Cathy”.  It’s much harder to talk in front of people who are not enamored with what IDOT is doing.  That’s where doing your homework, knowing what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, can help to answer the public’s questions truthfully.  When we were working on the Kingery Reconstruction Project, we were debating the merits of noise walls.  The municipality had a choice on implementation and wanted input from their residents, with IDOT staff on hand to answer questions.  The public opinion was mixed for and against.  These were lengthy public sessions, but we took the time to stay and answer all of the public’s questions.  The public was very appreciative of our time and thoroughness.  It’s not easy to do but it’s rewarding when the public thanks you for your efforts.

AP: What keeps you up at night?

CK: At different stages of my career I worried about different things. The times I couldn’t sleep at night were when I was in transition at a new position.  In construction I worried about things that were way beyond my control.  For example temporary traffic control kept me up, worried that someone would have an accident and get hurt.  When I first started my current assignment, I was worried if everything would get done.  Then I eventually realized if I was out sick or away, work would just have to get done without me.  As long as people come in and do the best job they can, everything will work out because new and different transportation demands will be there tomorrow.  It’s more important to prioritize and get the most important things done than it is to try and get everything done because there will always be something.

AP: Thanks again for your time Catherine, this has been great.  As part of this mentor series, can we post a picture of your workspace?

CK: Of course, thank you for the opportunity.

Mentor Workspace

DC Job Alert! NADO Hiring for Three Positions (Including Internships)

Program Manager

The National Association of Development Organizations (NADO) Research Foundation is seeking  a full-time program manager.  Position is responsible for managing various grant funded projects and includes developing content for issue briefs and reports, conferences and workshops, webinars and website; conducting research; preparing grant reports; overseeing interns and other administrative / management tasks.  The position will focus on the work that regional development organizations (also known as councils of governments, planning development districts, area development districts, regional planning councils) are doing in their multi-county areas to help develop strategies for post disaster economic recovery; other project work will address sustainable  approaches to development and other topics.  Position includes travel.  Program management experience a strong plus, but not required.  Candidates should have a background in community and economic development, rural development, program management.  Sound research, writing, and communication skills a must.  Masters degree preferred but not required.  Excellent benefits package. To apply, submit a cover letter indicating availability, résumé and two short writing samples (fewer than five pages each) by email to lthompson@nado.org by February 8, 2013.  Position to be filled by March.  No phone calls please.

NADO is a membership association providing advocacy, education, research and training to multi-jurisdictional councils of governments, economic development districts, and regional planning commissions.  The NADO Research Foundation, the 501(c)(3) nonprofit affiliate of NADO, provides professional development training, research, and peer networking services.  Visit www.NADO.org for more information about our organization and programs.

Transportation Research and Communications Fellow

The NADO Research Foundation is seeking a graduate student interested in rural and small city transportation and mobility issues and economic development. NADO is a nonprofit membership association; we provide advocacy, education, research, and training for the nation’s multi-jurisdictional councils of governments, economic development districts, and regional planning commissions and councils, with an emphasis on rural and small metro regions. Visit www.NADO.org for more information about our organization and programs.

The Transportation Research and Communications Fellow will work closely with NADO’s staff to assist with education, training, and information through our regional transportation and economic development program.  The Fellow’s tasks will include assisting with organizing a national training event, developing written informational materials such as tip sheets and web-based content, and researching and writing case studies on effective transportation planning practices.  Graduate fellows at NADO typically work on a range of diverse projects, and have the opportunity to interact with planners and policymakers working across the country in a variety of settings.

This position is open to current or recent graduate students with a background in communications, city and regional planning, public policy, economic development, the social sciences, or related fields. Requirements include:

Interest in basic principles and current trends in regional planning, transportation, and economic development

  • Bachelor’s degree and 1-2 years work experience
  • Excellent communications skills, including research, analysis, and writing skills
  • Familiarity with updating website content and social media
  • Ability to conduct short interviews (phone or in-person)
  • Ability to collect and analyze qualitative information
  • Strong organizational skills and intense attention to detail
  • Proficient in Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook
  • Knowledge of GIS and/or Adobe Creative Suite is a plus

This is a paid position on an hourly basis. We are seeking a graduate fellow who can work 20-32 hours/week through summer 2013, with potential to extend longer.

To apply, please submit a cover letter describing your interests and skills along with a résumé and two short writing samples (fewer than five pages each) by email tockissel@nado.org by February 8, 2013.

 

Community and Economic Development Research Fellow

The NADO Research Foundation is seeking a graduate student interested in rural and small town community and economic development. NADO is a nonprofit membership association; we provide advocacy, education, research, and training for the nation’s multi-jurisdictional councils of governments, economic development districts, and regional planning commissions and councils, with an emphasis on rural regions and smaller places. Visit www.NADO.org for more information about our organization and programs.

The Community and Economic Development Research Fellow will work closely with NADO’s staff to conduct research and develop education and training materials to support our sustainable communities and economic development program. Responsibilities will include conducting research, preparing short case studies or fact sheets, developing website content, assisting to plan and manage workshops, and related administrative tasks. Graduate fellows at NADO typically work on a range of diverse projects, and have the opportunity to interact with planners and policymakers working across the country in a variety of settings.

This position is open to current or recent graduate students with a background in city and regional planning, public policy, economic development, the social sciences, or related fields. Requirements include:

  • Familiarity with/interest in basic principles and current trends in community and economic development, city and regional planning, and sustainable development
  • Bachelor’s degree and 1-2 years work experience
  • Excellent research, analysis, and writing skills, particularly in collecting and analyzing qualitative information
  • Strong organizational skills and intense attention to detail
  • Ability to conduct short interviews (phone or in-person)
  • Familiarity with updating social media and website content
  • Proficiency in Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook
  • Knowledge of GIS and/or Adobe Creative Suite is a plus

This is a paid position on an hourly basis. We are seeking a graduate fellow who can work 20-32 hours/week through the summer, with potential to extend longer.

To apply, please submit a cover letter describing your interests and skills along with a résumé and two short writing samples (fewer than five pages each) by email to knothstine@nado.org by February 8, 2013.