THE CONTRACTOR WHISPERER
The buck stops with the Resident Engineer, says Fred Young.
Not everyone can remember the exact day they were hired at Caltrans 17 years later but Fred Young, senior construction engineer, recalls it instantly: April 16, 1991. That date gave him the four years with the Department he needed to avoid the 1995 layoffs.
“That’s how I got saved,” he said. “It was a turning point in my life.” Lucky not only for him but also for us, since Young has proven to be an important part of many of the most significant projects in the District.
Before joining Caltrans, Young worked for a civil design company dealing with tract housing developments. He believes this gave him a great breath of experience, such as laying out streets and determining utilities locations, which would later serve him well in his Caltrans work.
He began in Construction at the end of a two-year rotation and quickly promoted to Senior Engineer, working on the widening of Highway 126 from the Los Angeles County line to the town of Fillmore. Young intended to explore new horizons within Caltrans after the several-phase project completed but “from then on I never left,” he said. “Somehow it was just one thing after another.”
What Young is referring to is the constant challenges and opportunities for growth that are a part of Construction. “What I really like about it is the responsibility placed upon the people building a project,” he said. “I think that Construction personnel have the last chance to make sure things are right before giving a project up to the public.”
Young believes communication is key to ensuring that all aspects of construction proceed smoothly, both internally and with the contractor. “Minor issues can be resolved fairly if you establish a partnership with the contractor to complete the job expeditiously, cost effectively and efficiently,” he said. “The bottom line is that Caltrans is not building the highway; it’s the contractor who builds it and we’re supposed to assist them.”
Managing contractors seems to be somewhat of an art and the most successful Resident Engineers are kind of like racehorse trainers (call them Contractor Whisperers). “You’ve got to know how to handle them and put yourself in their shoes,” Young says. Some are meticulous and proceed more carefully while others attack the work more aggressively but are more casual in the paperwork department and therefore more demanding that surveys, materials testing, and so forth be done RIGHT AWAY. The trick, he says, is to encourage their enthusiasm while letting them know that the State has its limits. “To me, a good RE knows how to balance that situation.”
All those skills have come in handy on Young’s current job: construction of the $42 million Golden State Freeway (I-5) High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lane from the Ronald Reagan Freeway (SR-118) to the Antelope Valley Freeway (SR-14), the first carpool lane on I-5 in Los Angeles County.
Scheduled to complete in late March or early April, Young says this project incorporates many elements of construction, including widening of two bridges, construction of five soundwalls and three retaining walls, concrete paving, drainage systems in the median and on the shoulder, new overhead signs, new median barriers with architectural treatments, installation of Closed Circuit Television (CCTV), loops and electrical, asphalt paving, pile driving, dirt work and (believe it or not) more.
“It’s been an interesting and challenging project,” Young said. Not the least of the challenges was the fact that he had to work as a hands-on RE for the first time since 1997. “It sharpened my Contract Change Order (CCO) writing and letter writing abilities as well as solving daily problems and basically watching my budget.” It would have been much more difficult if it weren’t for a very cooperative contractor (Chumo Construction) who understands the state process, he added.
The I-5 HOV project kind of brings Young full circle. His initial rotation was in Traffic Operations where his very first assignment was to map out the HOV program for the entire district. “At that time I wasn’t even sure what HOV meant,” he said. His job involved programming which routes would have carpool lanes added in which fiscal year. The I-5 lanes were the first ones he worked on.
For now, I-5 also seems to be his future. He’s looking at another project to build more soundwalls within the HOV project limits as well as some ramp improvements and shoulder repaving. Next year, he’s counting on a $221 million project to add HOV lanes on I-5 from the 118 to the Hollywood Freeway (SR-170). And, he jokes, like every other employee he’s wondering “Where is my promotion?”