You do WHAT?! The Coolest Caltrans Jobs You Never Heard Of
Meet four Caltrans employees with uncommon jobs and a passion for their unusual work. (This is the first article in an occasional series.)
If you ask someone to name a typical Caltrans job, chances are they might mention engineers, maintenance workers or surveyors. They probably won't name the photogrammetry coordinator, the water manager, the district's cultural resource liaison, or District 7's bridge operators. Although uncommon, these jobs are just as vital to Caltrans' mission as positions that are more readily identifiable. We invite you meet four employees with unusual jobs below.
PHIL RUSHTON, Photogrammetry Coordinator
Years with Caltrans: 30
When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up? Astronaut.
What do you like best about your job? The opportunity to work with so many functional units.
What's the greatest challenge you face? Keeping up with rapidly challenging technology.
When Photogrammetry Coordinator Phil Rushton began his career in photogrammetry in the '80s, staff were still drawing maps by hand for major construction projects. Photogrammetric technology has come a long way since then.
In simple terms, photogrammetry is the use of photographic imagery to determine geometric properties of objects or the environment. Rushton and his staff of four use photogrammetric techniques to provide detailed information about terrain that will be impacted by major construction and improvement projects. "It's all about getting precise alignments and reproducing the ground accurately," Rushton said.
To do that, Rushton creates a flight plan for a plane that flies over a project area at 1,500 to 2,000 feet taking a series of overlapping aerial photos. The photos are used to create "topo" (topographic) maps that help engineers create successful designs.
But photogrammetric tools aren't limited to engineering purposes. Aerial maps can provide valuable information about the area around a project site so community impacts can be anticipated and planned for. Infrared photos have been used to assess vegetation growth. And photogrammetric imagery is frequently invaluable in legal contexts.
"We provide detailed reference material that can enhance the work of other departments," Rushton said. "And with the digital revolution, we can apply ever-increasing resolution to even the most mundane purposes. That allows us to be more precise and effective in everything we do."
GARY IVERSON, Senior Environmental Planner
Years with Caltrans: Almost 33
When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up? Forest ranger.
What do you like best about your job? No two days are ever the same.
What's the greatest challenge you face? This is a complicated job, and some people don't have a good understanding of what goes into it and why it's necessary.
As a senior environmental planner, Gary Iverson spends the bulk of his time working on the environmental compliance documents required before projects can move forward. He's also in charge of cultural resource compliance. Caltrans projects must comply with federal, state and local laws designed to protect a wide variety of cultural resources - everything from dinosaur bones to prehistoric Native American sites to historic structures.
"If a project impacts a cultural resource, we'll work with engineers to redesign the site to minimize the impact. In some cases, we might bridge the site so that it's not disturbed," Iverson said.
In some cases, he works closely with stakeholders to develop innovative solutions to preserve cultural resources. For example, when ancestral remains of Tataviam tribe members were discovered along SR-126 near Val Verde, Iverson joined forces with the tribe to repatriate the remains with as much sensitivity and care as possible.
"The cultural resources that we work to protect belong not only to the indigenous people - they belong to all of us," Iverson said. "It's important that future generations know about the people who came before us."
MARIE CASTLE, Schuyler Heim Bridge Operator
Years with Caltrans: 24
When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up? I didn't know, but we came across the bridge all the time when we took my mom to work. I always thought working on the bridge would be a neat job, and now here I am.
What do you like best about your job? I love being around the water, smelling the salt water. I never get tired of it.
What's the greatest challenge you face? Sometimes trucks don't want to stop when I have to raise the bridge, or they stop in the middle of the bridge.
You may know that the six-lane Schuyler Heim Bridge, located in the Port of Los Angeles, is the largest vertical lift bridge on the West Coast. And you may know that it serves as a critical link between Long Beach and Terminal Island. But chances are, you don't know Marie Castle - the Schuyler Heim Bridge operator who has been at her post in the small control room raising and lowering the bridge's deck for decades.
Castle is one of four full-time Schuyler Heim Bridge operators, who stop traffic and raise and lower the bridge about seven times each day (fewer times during a night shift). "We raise and lower the bridge using a dial," she explained. "Usually it takes anywhere from six to 15 minutes, depending on the size of the boat. Tug boats go a lot faster than cargo ships."
Castle and other bridge operators go though two weeks of intensive training before working on the 61-year-old bridge. The training includes the mechanics of bridge operation, traffic control procedures, PA system familiarity, rules of the waterway, and how to maintain the vessel passage log. Castle's training did not include instruction on what to do if a pedestrian decides to jump from the bridge (call 911) or how to handle the peregrine falcons who nest on the bridge (don't make them mad). She learned those lessons on the job.
She also learned that she loves the view from the control room. "We get great sunrises and sunsets up here. And on the Fourth of July, you can see a bunch of fireworks displays," she said. "I love this job. I can't imagine doing anything else."
TOBY MacELROY, Water Manager
Years with Caltrans: 3.5
When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up? Architect.
What do you like best about your job? The vast array of landscape activities that I deal with.
What's the greatest challenge you face? Getting sufficient funding to resolve the landscape issues we face, particularly irrigation and conservation issues.
District 7 maintains about 9,000 acres of freeway landscaping with roughly 1,300 water meters and irrigation controllers, 25,000 sprinkler valves and more than 250,000 sprinkler heads. The man responsible for keeping the water flowing for the crews who maintain the landscaping is Water Manager Toby MacElroy. His description includes managing remote irrigation control systems, training staff, monitoring conservation efforts and resolving water issues.
"A lot of what I do is acting as a liaison between the maintenance crews, landscape architects, construction and water companies - I'm the man in the middle," MacElroy said. "I have a long contacts list. And if I don't have the person I need on the list, I make calls until I find them."
Sometimes, finding the right person can be tricky. District 7 encompasses 63 water utilities, all with their own rules and regulations. It's MacElroy's job to ensure that sprinklers are properly timed to reflect watering restrictions.
That's not always easy. Portions of District's 7 irrigation systems are aging and in need of repair. Even those systems in perfect condition can be damaged by construction work, errant vehicles and vandalism. It's often MacElroy who gets the call when such problems arise.
Ultimately, the job of the water manager isn't just about irrigation controllers and sprinkler heads. "It's about creating a psychological impression," MacElroy said. "It might not seem significant to some people, but landscaping matters a lot to communities. It's the only thing that softens the freeways. It changes the way people feel about them, and that's why it's important."
Without environmental planners, bridge operators, photogrammetrists, water experts and others with unique jobs, District 7 would fall short of meeting the transportation needs of Californians. Employees' unique strengths in a wide range of disciplines are the Districts' most valuable asset. Working together, we can accomplish great things.
Do you have an unusual job? Tell us about it. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.