“To find out what one is fitted to do and to secure an opportunity to do it is the key to happiness,” said American philosopher John Dewey. If this is the case, all signs point to one happy Structures Maintenance Chief.
Kwan Lam’s career journey began decades ago in Hong Kong, where his younger self pondered his future. After much thought, it came to him: “Maybe being an engineer is not a bad idea.” But what kind? Eventually he realized he wanted to go into civil engineering, a decision that led him to California for his education.
He first went to a community college and then finished up at Cal State University, Sacramento. As he was getting ready to graduate, Caltrans came to the campus to recruit engineers.
“California is Number One in building freeways,” Lam said, so it was pretty much a no-brainer. He started with the Department in June of 1978. “And I was so happy to have the opportunity to practice what I had learned in school.”
He joined Bridge Structures Construction and was assigned a project right away, working in that division on various bridge construction projects in districts 2, 3, 4 and 10 until 1990. By that point, Lam had a family and wanted to stick closer to home. He switched to Structures Maintenance, which required less traveling. He was an Area Bridge Maintenance Engineer (ABME) for five years, investigating bridges in Northern and Central California, before promoting to senior, Statewide Bridge Painting Maintenance and Coordinator of Statewide Bridge Maintenance Projects. He followed that with four years as Bridge Rehab and Replacement Advisor for Districts 7 and 12 and then assumed his current position in 2005. In between, he also had an Acting Maintenance Office Chief assignment in District 4 in 2001.
“My office is a combination of different functions,” Lam said. Structures Maintenance provides inspections for all state and local bridges except those in Los Angeles County; does special and bridge damage investigations; handles bridge repair design work and bridge load rating analysis; performs overhead sign structural investigations for the entire state; handles as-built plans AND performs encroachment permit reviews for all Southern California bridges. “It’s a good mixture,” he added. “It keeps my job exciting.”
Some of his most challenging and memorable assignments have included constructing a mechanical bridge (where the main span can pivot from side to side) in District 10 near Lodi, which he likened to “building a Swiss watch in the wilderness” in terms of complexity and challenges.
Another major challenge was the 1998 repainting of a steel bridge adjacent to the Bay Bridge in District 4. Because of coastal fog and rust issues with the railing, “the paint made the bridge look like a big ugly quilt due to the patches of repair on the original paint during construction.” Apparently, a lot of political pressure was put on Caltrans to fix the problem “so we had to come up with an ‘out of the box’ design,” Lam said. He ended up incorporating the rust into a two-tone paint color that has been acceptable to everyone. “To my surprise, it really worked,” he added. “I haven’t had any complaints.”
He’ll also never forget the first bridge he ever built after getting his professional license in 1983. It was a local bridge for El Dorado County and it involved a lot of apprehension and a steep learning curve. “It was a lot like the first time you fall in love, with all the ups and downs,” Lam said. “It was that exciting.”
Two other projects are also significant: the I-5 tunnel fire emergency response in 2007 and the 2006 replacement in two emergency contracts of 12 structurally deficient bridges on I-40 in District 8.
Lam"s current position offers him a lot of satisfaction because, although a manager, “I can spend as much time as I want acting like an engineer and I still have a lot of interest in that,” he said.
What does the future hold for this self-described “Caltrans nomad?” More than anything else, he feels that after 31 years on the job, it’s time for him to give back to the Caltrans community by “helping other engineers to grow.” And if he ever retires? “I’d like to be a beach bum and snorkel around the world looking at coral.”