Part of our “The Engineer’s Corner” series, in this piece we sit down with Bikeways Engineer and LADOT Dot-gers softball team manager, Carlos Rodriguez. Today, if you ride your bike on any bike path within the City, chances are Carlos worked on the design and/or coordination that made those bike paths possible. Not only is Carlos our group’s bike path design expert, he is known around the office for his strong work ethic and “can do” attitude.
Take a seat in “The Engineer’s Corner” and learn more about bike paths, interagency coordination, and the importance of internships with Carlos Rodriguez.
LADOT Bike Blog: Can you tell us a little about yourself?
Carlos Rodriguez: My background is in civil engineering. I have a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering with an emphasis on structures and a master’s in engineering. After I graduated from college, I got a job in the private sector before joining the public sector. I have been working for the City of Los Angeles for 16, going on 17 years. I had two previous assignments before Bikeways. One was in our District Operations, managing our operations in the Valley and after that I worked in Special Events. I’ve been in Bikeways between six and seven years. Since I started here I have mostly worked on bike paths. On a personal basis, I am 43 years old and married. My wife and I have a three year old son and one more on the way. I’m happy at home.My kids are the most exciting thing that has happened to me. I am thankful to everyone in my life.
Can you describe your commute? What is it like getting to work?
My typical commute to work is by public transportation. I live in West Covina. It is about a 25 to 30 mile drive into Downtown. After a long day at work, the last thing I want to do is drive home in traffic. So I decided to try the Metrolink. It was a nice commute, but it started to get very expensive. Now I use the Foothill Transit Bus which has two options; I can take either the express bus or the Silver Streak. On occasion, I also carpool with other co-workers.
How did you become interested in engineering, and why did you become an engineer?
I don’t know if I’m the typical case but I was confused in high school. I didn’t have a lot of career guidance and I wasn’t aware of what my options were. My parents are blue collar workers, they worked in factories, and they knew that an education would be the best option for me. In high school my aspirations were of becoming either an accountant or architect. I took an accounting class and a drafting class. I began studying architecture at Cal State Northridge. I thought that was what I was going to do. I went into their summer program and found out they don’t have a full architecture program. They said, they had a couple classes but, eventually I would have to transfer or try engineering, which was a similar concept. I said “sure let’s try it.” I did not realize civil engineering was an interest of mine but I used to always get excited as a kid when we would drive by construction zones and watch things being built. Construction always attracted my attention, but I think the concept of putting something together – going from nothing to something – always intrigued me. When I got into engineering, civil engineering seemed like a good match. That is why I ended up focusing on structural design.
So you were with private firms before joining LADOT?
Yes. Right out of college I had several internships. I worked on campus doing research for a professor and also worked for LA County Public Works. When I graduated in ’96 I had a difficult time finding a job. It took me eight months before I got my first job with a private firm. Nine months later I got laid off due to changes in the job market. Caltrans was hiring so I got a job with Caltrans working on the 210 Freeway expansion. We were responsible for the design of the first six miles. I was with Caltrans for a year before I was hired by LADOT. I have been here ever since.
And then you moved around within DOT?
That is part of one of the programs that we have here. We get rotated, approximately every five years but at times it can be longer. My first assignment was for five years, at my second for six years, and I have been at Bikeways for six years. I don’t know if I will be in a rotational program again.
So you joined Bikeways around 2008?
Yes, right around the economic crisis. At the time, Bikeways was not as busy as it is today. When I first came around there were some significant projects but since then our group has greatly progressed.
What did you start off doing in Bikeways and how does that compare to your day-to-day duties now?
The first assignment that I had in Bikeways was what we call the Los Angeles River 1C Phase, from Fletcher to Riverside. I was happy to work on that since my background is in construction and civil engineering. I got my feet wet through the process and assisted our design team with the project. It was a good learning experience. Now I am on my own as a project manager. I manage the funding, in some cases the project development, and some of the design review. Currently, I am focused on the Expo II bike path construction phase, reviewing some design changes but mostly construction related matters. I also worked on the Metro Orange Line extension. It opened two years ago and I am still working on punch-list items, or the finishing touches, with the contractor and Metro to make sure we get everything we spelled out.
The other project I am working on is the L.A. River Headwaters, from Owensmouth to Mason. This is a pretty challenging project. I am going to be responsible from A-though-Z. The funding is the most challenging. We are working with ATP funding – under a very strict schedule – and the coordination we have to do with outside agencies, like the Army Corp and the LA County Public Works, really complicates the schedule. I have gotten to the point where I feel comfortable with these projects and their nature that I sort of operate on my own. I do not have a whole lot of guidance anymore as I did when I first started but, I feel pretty comfortable. The last four to five years have been challenging but there’s no way to meet the challenge other than to step up. It has been a really nice learning experience.
It sounds like you are more involved with the construction of new paths rather than the maintenance of existing paths.
Yes, I used to manage the maintenance program but now I am more focused on the new paths. It helps to have gone through the other phases of building paths and maintaining because then you understand the full scope of things. In designing these paths I need to understand everything from how landscaping will affect a bike path, to lighting, fencing, the amount of width required, interactions between bicyclists and pedestrians, signage, and more. It has been a nice growth pattern for me. Now I feel like I can provide good feedback on a project.
You must coordinate with a lot of other agencies, do you communicate with the public too?
On Metro projects we do a lot of coordination internally with our sister agencies like Bureau of Engineering, Bureau of Street Lighting, Bureau of Street Services, Metro, and our contractors. We also coordinate with the public and the bicycle community. For Expo, there is a bicycle advisory committee that provides input and guidance for the customer to be best served on this facility. We talk to potential users and non-users, about how a project will affect their residence, their business… so yes there is a lot of coordination. We also have an outreach individual who helps us handle communications with the public. I end up being an assistant at most meetings to answer questions from a design and engineering point of view.
So exactly how closely involved are you with on-the-ground level details, such as minor curves in the bike path’s trajectory?
When we go into development we initially try to figure out what our alignment is, where the path is going to go, and so on. Once we get into the design phase we may need to put a power pole somewhere that may interfere with the initial alignment. So we have to re-align the bike path, which is our responsibility. On the construction side, things might happen that you’re not aware of. For example, DWP had to build a transformer and a switch to power the train adjacent to the bike path. It was three feet into our alignment so we had to hold meetings about how to re-align the bike path. At times it comes down to calculating inches. It starts at a bird’s eye view and at some point in the project when you’re in design or construction; then you’re looking through a microscope.
Do you have a favorite part of your work, or a favorite project?
The most intriguing thing about working in Bikeways for me is the construction side. I really enjoy these Metro jobs because they’re difficult jobs to handle due to the fast pace, which means there are unforeseen challenges. But I feel that if thrown into a situation I can think dynamically to address it, and that happens in construction. When there is a problem, I have to come up with a solution. Those are the things that interest me because they require me to dig deep as a professional and really understand what I know and put it into practice. As far as projects, I don’t have a favorite project but, I like being able to apply some of my background into my work, learn as I go, and provide input based on previous experiences. I really have enjoyed everything from the LA River to Metro projects but, not one project in specific. I feel very fortunate to have been around for the projects I have worked on.
Thank you for your time Carlos, is there anything you would like to add or share?
One of the things I find challenging right now is that we are a little bit overwhelmed with a lot of new work. This makes it difficult to service the public. I want to thank the interns we have in the program. As mentioned earlier, we appreciate the work of our interns and student professional workers, some of whom are here on a volunteer basis. From my point of view, I value what they do. I see their passion and interest, so I really appreciate them. It makes a significant difference to have planners on our projects. A few years ago we had some engineering interns. They were kept busy with the bike lane work we were doing which was massive at that time. As that tapered off, my supervisor came to me and asked if I had any work for the interns. I decided to take them to meetings and asked them to listen to the dialogue. I felt that this would be a good experience for them. This type of experience can become part of their next phase as a professional and an experience that sometimes isn’t taught in school. It is very important to know how to interact with people, negotiate at meetings, and how to coordinate professionally. Some of the engineering interns have graduated or moved on and we haven’t been able to replenish them. However, we really appreciate the interns for all their contributions to Bikeways. Thank you!