Inside Seven
Current Issue: September 2014
The entire Special Crews staff, whose crews are widely spread out over both Los Angeles and Ventura Counties, pose for a rare group photo in 2007.

by  Jeanne Bonfilio
Issue Date: 04/2008

The highly-skilled and dedicated electrical staff of Special Crews provide many important functions for a safe California Highway System.

Some might think that the maintenance of the California State highway system starts and ends where the rubber meets the road.  But that is only scratching the surface.  What lies above and below the roadway is equally as important to facilitate the safe movement of traffic.  The highway system could not function safely without a talented and skillful electrical staff to help light the way.

Electrical lighting, such as installation and maintenance of freeway and state highway light poles, signage lighting, while a very large and important function, is one part of the multi-dimensional electrical systems, which make up a safe state highway system.  In these days of a more technologically advanced freeway system, Caltrans electrical staff are also responsible for ramp metering, signalization and traffic signal controls, freeway cameras, Highway Advisory Radio (HAR), Changeable Message Signs (CMS), vehicle detection/monitoring and communications systems.

These and other types of electrical systems and lighting provide for the safe and orderly control of vehicle and pedestrian traffic.  And that is what the highly-skilled members of the electrical staff of Special Crews are focused on 24 hours a day.

Under the direction of Dan Sanchez, Special Crews Region Manager, and headed up by Superintendents Jerry Gonzales and William Serb, Caltrans electricians and other staff are responsible for all issues arising within the electrical department of the District Maintenance Program.

As superintendents Gonzales and Serb have six crews each, and one extra team assigned to the night crew.  The crews often overlap in boundaries, as many have responsibilities throughout the District.  Their jobs vary daily; from project reviews, to citizen inquiries, to material procurement to coordinating staff, materials and equipment. 

 “We have small crews with very large areas, who often have to rely on one another to complete their mission,” said Gonzales.  “This is accomplished due to the professional attitude, great work ethic, skilled workmanship and devotion to duty by all electrical staff.”

Gonzales and Serb oversee all work on these crews: Westwood, Ventura, Long Beach, Burbank, Norwalk, San Gabriel, Pomona, Metro, Electrical Repair Lab, Pump, Electrical Maintenance Systems (EMS), Traffic Operations System Network (TOSNET), and electrical maintenance on Caltrans bridges in the South Bay area.  All together, there are some 89 positions consisting of 13 Electrical Supervisors, 51 Electrician II, 8 Electrician I, 12 Electrical Technicians, 3 Electronic Specialists and 2 on Highway Maintenance. 

“We all work in a very dangerous environment, often in one- or two-person crews, where water and electricity don’t mix, where decisions are dictated by the situation, and the job always gets done in a safe manner,” added Gonzales.
Below, Electrical Supervisors Roy (Scott) Webster (Westwood), and Sammy Vargas (Norwalk) share a story about some of their work experiences:


Westwood Crew Electrical Supervisor, Roy (Scott) Webster, and his crew members cover portions of U. S. 101, Santa Monica Freeway (I-10) from the Harbor Freeway (I-110) to the McClure Tunnel, Pacific Coast Highway (SR-1) west to Ventura, portions of Sepulveda Boulevard (SR-1) from the Century Freeway (I-105) to Artesia Boulevard and the Century Freeway (I-105) to the Harbor Freeway (I-110). 

"Our electrical inventory book just for the Westwood crew is four to five inches thick," said Webster.  His six-member staff includes Calvin Dubuclet, Todd Johnson, Kanayo Nwobodo, David Dong, Cathy Lewis all Electricians II, and Aaron Gay, Electrical Technician.

On a regular basis, Webster's staff handles over 3,000 streetlights on state highways, over 200 freeway ramp meters, all freeway signal lights -- and over 60 traffic signals on Pacific Coast Highway and Sepulveda Boulevard, including on- and off-ramps.  Webster said that their jobs are very challenging.  "I have seen electricians get hit by errant vehicles while performing specialized jobs," he said.  "Not only do we work in a dangerous environment, but we are also dealing with electricity," he explained.  "And a lot of work is performed at night.
The crew also maintains the transition metering system, which uses special control devices.  Currently, they are performing 90- and 120-day maintenance checks for ramp meters and traffic signals, as part of their regular maintenance, and also installing hundreds of steel lids on traffic signal-rated pull boxes to prevent copper wire theft.  They also replace signals that have been knocked down -- and replace circuits for streetlights or electrical sign outages.

In the two years and three months since Webster has led the Westwood Crew, he says that they have worked on many challenging projects.  His crew recently installed what are called "smart studs" on the Santa Monica Freeway inside the famous McClure Tunnel near Pacific Coast Highway, which are light-emitting diodes, or LED lights, in the center median so that traffic can better delineate their commute.  "This was an important safety improvement project," said Webster.  They also repaired and improved the electrical sign located on southbound Hollywood Freeway (101) at the Highland Boulevard off-ramp to alert the motoring public to use alternate off-ramps when special events at Universal City or the Hollywood Bowl require traffic mitigation measures. 

"Our jobs are very challenging," Webster, concluded. "But when we drive by one of our projects at night and view our hard work that lights the way for motorists, we can actually see the results of our efforts -- and we know that our jobs are very rewarding."


For over six years, Electrical Supervisor Sammy Vargas from the Norwalk Crew has been leading his skillful crew members who have electrical responsibility over portions of the Century Freeway (I-105), the Long Beach Freeway (I-710), the Santa Ana Freeway (I-5) and the San Gabriel River Freeway (I-605).  They are also responsible for electrical work on the state route portions of Whittier Boulevard and Lakewood Boulevard.

His crew includes Fabian Bolivar, Lead worker; Manny Arismendez and Donald Mallet, Electricians II; Ed Garcia, Electrician I; Ernesto Brathwaite and Michael Flores, Electrical Technicians; Carlos Rueda, Station Engineer.  With the responsibility for over 2,500 lights, 126 ramp meters, at least 57 signals and all of the lighted signage, they have their work cut out for them. 

When Vargas first arrived at Caltrans, he utilized his background in Construction to remodel all street "action" and information signs in the District and to replace fluorescent lighting with energy-saving light fixtures with a 15-year maintenance life, rather than one year.  "This eliminated the need for yearly maintenance, which saves hours of re-lamping and reduces the need for lane closures, and drastically cuts time for lighting repairs," Vargas said.  His effort may be implemented throughout the District.   "It took us about a year to finish this project -- but will save countless years of maintenance," he added. Crews are also securing electrical pull boxes to deter theft of copper wire. 

One of the most challenging responsibilities is rain-related traffic signal cabinet “knockdowns," added Vargas.  For example, when these electrical cabinets are hit during traffic accidents, debris might be strewn onto the travel way.  "There can be live electrical wires and cabinets everywhere," he explained.  "We clean up the mess, trying not get shocked in the rain.  Worker and public safety is our number one priority.  Rain or shine we have to get this work done because the motoring public is relying on us."

There is also a lot of hard work that goes on behind the scenes, Vargas explained further, especially when it comes to emergency response.  "From my experience, there is no agency that responds more quickly to emergencies than Caltrans," he said.  "Our road and electrical maintenance crews are a team.”  They are available in the middle of the night when needed, 24/7 to respond to life-threatening emergencies.”  At times, electrical poles often fall down during accidents and he and his staff are charged with disconnecting the electricity and helping to save lives.  "Caltrans is a team -- and with our specialized electrical and road maintenance skills, we put our trust in each other and help each other -- with the goal of helping the public."

Gonzales summed it up best when he said how proud he is of the men and women of Special Crews who make the District 7 highways safe.  “I am very proud of my supervisors and their crews, who answer the call day and night, to everything from a light out, to a signal malfunction, to a downed light pole or service cabinet to power outages,” added Gonzales. “These fine men and women are always there when you need them, risking their lives to keep our roadways open and safe to drive.”


Westwood Electrical Crew, left to right, top row: Aaron Gary, Kanayo Nwabodo, Calvin Dubuclet, Todd Johnson, and Dave Dong.  Bottom row: Cathy Lewis and Roy Webster. 
Norwalk Electrical Crew, left to right: Donald Mallet, Sammy Vargas, Edward Garcia, Emesto Brathwaite, Michael Flores, Carlos Rueda, Fabian Bolivar and Manual Arismendez.