Inside Seven
Current Issue: September 2014
Employee Spotlight
Linda Taira, Corridor and Special Studies Branch Chief

Linda Taira, Corridor and Special Studies Branch Chief
by  Kelly Markham
Issue Date: 03/2010

She helps plan our transportation future, because “throwing darts at a map” and guessing doesn’t work very well.

Some people know from a very young age exactly what they want to be when they grow up. Not Linda Taira. While in college, she considered becoming an artist, pilot, doctor and veterinarian. Eventually, her wide-ranging interests found a home in environmental planning. She later earned an M.A. in geography/urban planning.

Taira got her first taste of Caltrans in the early 1980s while working under contract with the Orange County Transportation Authority in District 12 offices. In 1997, she joined District 7. She’s currently the Corridor and Special Studies Branch Chief in the Office of Environmental Engineering and Corridor Studies.

Inside 7 sat down with Taira to discuss the unique pleasures and challenges of planning for our transportation future today.

Inside 7: Of all the places you could have worked, why Caltrans?

Linda Taira: The transportation system has a huge impact on how well everything else works, because there’s such a strong nexus between transportation and our everyday lives. Caltrans is at the center of major transportation-related decisions and can have a great influence on the quality of life for future generations. I get to play a role in that.

I7: Why do we need corridor studies?

Taira: Because if we focus only on the standard project development process, we can miss the big picture. A corridor is more than just a segment of freeway lanes. It’s a broader, longer area that encompasses the rail services, bus services, arterials, operational aspects – all those systems working together. By looking at the corridor, we can do a better job of developing a mix of near-, mid- and long-range projects that can save us a lot of money.

I7: Can you give us an example of a special study?

Taira: Park 101, which would put a park over a half mile of US-101 in Downtown Los Angeles near Union Station. We’re about to do a quick economic feasibility study. It’s really exciting to see ideas like this that go beyond just adding lanes to the freeway. It’s all about creating an effective transit-oriented mix-use development that provides higher density and more travel options that get people out of their cars. We want to create an environment where people feel comfortable walking or biking to their destination or taking a bus or train.

I7: How important is multi-modal transportation? Most people think of Caltrans as the agency that builds freeways for cars.

Taira: In order to drive at free-flow speed 20 years from now, we’d probably have to add 20 lanes in each direction on key freeways in Los Angeles, such as I-405 and I-5. So it can’t be just about freeway lanes. It has to be about all these other opportunities that get people out of their cars or encourage them to share rides.

I7: How would you like your job to evolve over the next 10 years?

Taira: I’d like to work more on the technical support side, supporting GIS [Geospatial Information Systems], microsimulation – which is software that simulates traffic conditions – and modeling. For example, every project requires a model run so you can forecast 20 or 30 years out. Modeling helps us to determine where future bottlenecks might be so that we can plan more effectively. It’s not a perfect process because there are a lot of variables we can’t predict, like the economic downturn. But it’s still the best tool that we have, other than, perhaps, throwing darts at a map.

I7: To what extent does planning transportation project impact how cities and regions grow?

Taira: In general, the state can’t dictate land uses, but we can offer funding incentives that encourage smart growth and greater densification to prevent urban sprawl. Some cities are resistant to adding lanes because of increased traffic. But the population is going to happen anyway. If we bury our heads in the sand, we could have huge economic problems because people literally can’t move from one place to another. It’s all about quality of life for me. We want to make it easier for people to travel from point A to point B – by car, bicycle, skateboard, whatever.

I7: What gets you excited about your job?

Taira: The satisfaction I feel when something goes right, especially if it’s something that helps the community at large. It’s great to see that we’ve accomplished something that’s context-sensitive and makes life more tolerable, like improving traffic flow, enhancing the visual aspects of the corridor, or improving safety. I also like delivering projects that stakeholders have been urging us to do in their communities. That’s the best feeling.