Inside Seven
Current Issue: September 2014
Employee Spotlight
Andrew Ponzi, Senior Bridge Engineer

Employee Spotlight on Andrew Ponzi
by  Maria Raptis
Issue Date: 06/2012

(click on photos to enlarge)

Let’s get it out of the way first --there’s no relation to Charles Ponzi, the man who first orchestrated the pyramid scheme in 1919.

Andrew Ponzi, however, loves other kinds of schematics. He's an area construction senior bridge engineer and 32-year Caltrans veteran in the Division of Engineering Services and Office of Structure Construction (DES/OSC). Ponzi is a colorful and gregarious third generation Italian-American who loves his work in bridge engineering
and construction.

He knew he wanted to build stuff since he was 8 years old, when he built a treehouse in the backyard.

"I took my dad's scrap wood and built until I realized that the platform was too big to lift up," he said. "I figured it out, though."

Ponzi hasn't stopped working, building and figuring things out.

You come to know Andrew Ponzi through the stories he shares about his family, both his immediate family and his grandparents. As a youth, he liked wide-open spaces, nature and the mechanics of constructing tunnels and canals. He, his brother and their parents enjoyed annual fishing and camping trips in Oregon where they fished for salmon on a Native American Indian reservation at the mouth of the Klamath River. He still enjoys nature, hiking and mountain biking.

For those reasons, his favorite project was rebuilding the State Route 2 bridge that was completed in 2009. Following a severe storm in 2005, the roadway had 17 damaged sites along a 10-mile section that completely closed a large portion of Angeles Crest Highway for nearly five years.

Due to the nature of the terrain at the SR-2 construction site, including a 75 percent-grade mountain slope, a bridge was designed that would allow rain, run-off and erosive debris to slide under the roadway, deflecting future erosion.

(Read about the project in Inside 7 December 2008 edition or click on the link to see a time lapse video of the construction project)

It seems that Ponzi is often in the center of Caltrans teams assigned to emergency projects such as after the 1994 Northridge earthquake and more recently the SR-60 Paramount Bridge fire that occurred last December.

"I was 34 years old when President Bill Clinton toured the damaged structures three days following the Northridge quake," said Ponzi. "I was barely functioning on one hour sleep for the last three nights when the most powerful man in the world pulled me aside from many executives, dignitaries and security to ask me questions about how and why this happened."

Clinton wanted to know the theory and principles of rebuilding and retrofitting, why there was so much damage and why freeways and bridges collapsed.

"I wasn't sure he'd grasp the technical details of column configuration," said Ponzi, "but an hour later he repeated it to others with complete understanding and confidence. He got it!"

Then, Clinton asked,"What can we do to get this done faster?" Ponzi said he was careful about the limits of his authority, but his response was basic and truthful. "Expedite the funding and minimize the red tape, please," Ponzi told the president.

As impressive as this was to a young engineer, Ponzi said he was most impressed by then Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan's demeanor, composure and command of the situation.

As a teen, Ponzi excelled in school, graduated early, and was offered a job on the spot at a college career fair at Cal Poly (California Polytechnic State University) in San Luis Obispo in the late ‘70s.

“I ran into some friends on their way to a career fair. They were wearing shirts and ties and I was a mess,” recalls Ponzi. "I nearly turned down the job offer because it paid only $1212 a month, half of another offer for a construction job."

During college breaks, Ponzi was worked occasionally for a local contractor and realtor who fixed up vacant homes in the San Gabriel Valley. It was that hands-on experience that earned him a job with Caltrans District 7. He accepted the offer, he said, after taking into account the long-term stability and benefits that state employment offered, and with the advice of his parents.

He went right to work on the new I-210 and later on State Route 118. Ponzi enjoyed the years spent seismically retrofitting bridges in the district. He was also part of the team that built the Chileo and Tarzana Maintenance Stations.

What's left for Ponzi that could compare to and exceed some of the amazing work that he's been involved in. If he could choose, what bridge would he have liked to build?

"I love the Arroyo Seco Parkway's historic segmental arch bridge," he said. "Another beautiful structure is the new Hoover Dam Bridge on US-93. I would have liked to have been a part of that."

For now, Ponzi is content with being part of building the second largest pre-cast span bridge in the continental United States - the SR-2 Bridge. Take a drive and have a look.

Andrew Ponzi (on right) and Ali El-Zaynab observe bridge construction in 2007 on SR-2, the Angeles Crest Highway. The SR-2 Bridge in District 7 is the second largest pre-cast span bridge in the continental United States. The view from Ponzi's office trailer in - literally - the middle of SR-710 in Pasadena. It's a popular spot for CHP and FSP, but not many co-workers or guests stop by for coffee breaks. In late 2008, Caltrans District 7 re-opened the new, completed SR-2 Bridge, much to the delight of cyclists, bikers and nature-loving enthusiasts.