ASK A DEPUTY: Ron Kosinski
This is the first in an occasional series in which Inside 7 gets the inside scoop on our various divisions. This month: Environmental Planning
What do you see as a top priority issue currently facing Caltrans Environmental?
Our top priority is to continue to lead the State in the timely delivery of environmentally sound projects. This has become an increasing challenge in the difficult economic times we are experiencing. Fortunately I have the absolute best seniors in the state government in my opinion so when problems arise, my team, under the fine direction of my Office Chief, Aziz Elattar, finds solutions and we move forward. The people of California deserve prompt attention to their mobility and environmental concerns. They are our top priority.
What are some of the Division’s current accomplishments?
There are so many individual accomplishments by my environmental staff that is difficult to summarize them, but I will just pick a few of the most recent success stories to give people an indication of what we are doing on a daily basis. Our people involved in the $1 billion I-405 design-build project are active and responsive to every challenge. Public concerns about construction are being addressed, environmental permits are being secured on time, and the commitments we made in the approved EIR/EIS are being integrated into the final plans. Every time I talk to our METRO and contracting partners they compliment the actions of our environmental planners. Our innovative use of social web-based communication at the recent I-405 Arbor Vitae project Public Hearing was praised by a wide range of local agencies and is something that others will be following. The environmentally sensitive approach we have taken to move the Route 101 project (in Ventura/Santa Barbara) towards construction could not have been accomplished by any other District. Our interaction with the communities on the difficult projects proposed on Route 2, I-10, I-110 and I-710 have illustrated to the public that Caltrans listens to their issues and incorporates their good ideas into our project development process. Projects are getting approved and built because my staff have the professional communication skills needed to add value to our projects and I am really proud of their continuing efforts.
Why does Environmental Planning matter and what does it contribute to the Department’s mission?
California remains a environmental paradise and the people of this state want that to continue. Our job is to support that dream. Beyond the obvious legal requirements for environmental approvals, our division has the multi-disciplinary expertise to address the specifics that keep the environment protected. That environmental expertise encompasses the natural, social and historical resources, plus the full spectrum of what contributes to our quality of life. We can't just sit in our offices and develop projects. As environmental planners our major contribution is to bring the values of the potentially impacted community into the decision- making process. I view that as a rewarding challenge that my team embraces.
What, if any, changes do you see coming down the pike for your Division?
The reality is that change is always coming to the way environmental activities are addressed. Regulations change, projects change, people change and come up with better approaches to accomplishing our tasks. The list of change is extensive...and ever changing ! Currently we are focused on improving the way the environmental commitments we make in our CEQA/NEPA documents are implemented. There are small holes in the current system and occasionally someone can eliminate a commitment to a community or an environmental trustee group without recognizing that they are violating a legally binding Caltrans commitment. Barbara Marquez and her team are working to ensure this little gap is closed and I believe what we develop will be a guide for other Districts to follow. Caltrans involvement in High Speed Rail (HSR) is another change we are embracing. Dawn Kukla is fast becoming a valued resource on HSR to add to her great range of special knowledge.
What would you want to do if you had all the resources you could want at your disposal?
HA ! Is this a real possibility? Well, these are difficult times and I have a "small is beautiful" perspective on government. Certainly if I had more resources I would use them to reward my current staff for their ongoing commitment to getting the job done. We do see a need for a few more biologists and help for Ollie Jackson with local assistance; she is doing a herculean job is this area. Plus our move towards more accurate cost estimating makes me think about adding a budget senior. Cheryl Henderson, who does some of this, is really overloaded. Air is another hot topic currently and while we rely on Andrew Yoon, who is excellent, I need instant help in this area a lot.
You’ve been around Caltrans for, ahem, a pretty long time. What strikes you as a major change for the better? For the worse?
The complexity of what we do is the biggest change...our work is just much more complex. Once upon a time (1980?) I thought that we would be able to use 3 or 4 EIR/EIS documents as examples for the remainder of my career. Well today those documents are really obsolete. Funding is the other area that has changed dramatically. METRO is clearly our partner and Caltrans employees need to realize this and act accordingly. I have seen that Caltrans and METRO employees truly can work together and create a productive team. We have many other funding partners that we need to collaborate with for our mutual benefit. Working together we all can bring useful solutions to the table.
What’s your advice for those just starting out in Environmental Planning or those who might like to work there?
The newer employees we have in Environmental Planning are a joy to have around. They listen, learn and contribute to our success in record time. I am not sure whether we provided this guidance or they brought it to Caltrans. I give our new employees and individual overview of what we do and what we expect from them, but these are very sharp, well educated individuals with a lot of enthusiasm. Part of my advise is "find your own environmental goal and pursue it...add value to our transportation projects." I think the combination of daily guidance from senior staff and the newer staff's feeling that they can use their individual skills freely, makes our Division a rewarding place to work.