Inside Seven
Current Issue: September 2014
Employee Spotlight
Office Chief Ralph Ricketson surveys the site of the future District 7 museum.

by  Judy Gish
Issue Date: 03/2007

The science of surveying is as old as the hills and as new as photospectral devices.

“Surveyors are a colorful breed,” says Surveys Office Chief Ralph Ricketson. “They are highly-motivated individuals who pride themselves on their independence and ability to figure things out for themselves.”

Ricketson has been doing just that at Caltrans for the past 16 years. Before the Department was lucky enough to get him, he worked in the private sector, initially as a structural engineer, working for a small firm back East.  While working as a civil engineer for a local firm here in California, he was offered a chance to go out with a survey crew when they were short staffed. “They were looking for a strong back and weak mind to fill in,” he recalls. “I just had a ton of fun climbing up and down those hills.” Plus, it paid better than his other job. And, behold, a surveyor was born!

For anyone who enjoys working outdoors, Southern California is paradise.  Joining Caltrans, however, held the additional attraction of working on large, important projects. But Ricketson believes the days of major freeway building as the Department’s primary mission are over. He sees this as the age of partnerships, multimodal transportation and data management and his mission is to “restructure” the Office of Surveys to perform optimally in this new environment.

The office, under the Division of Design, now consists of the Mapping Unit, the Survey Data Center, Photogrammetry, the Geographical Information System (GIS) Unit and five field offices.  “Due to technological changes, we are very efficiently churning out way more data,” Ricketson says, which is why he brought GIS back to Surveys.  

“In the past, our world was rather confined to the State right of ways,” he adds. Now, with technologies such as Global Positioning Systems (GPS), laser scanners that can accurately map structures in 3-dimensional coordinate images, photospectral devices that can even detect vegetation--such remote sensing technologies make it possible to access the world on a laptop computer. 

“And,” Ricketson continues, “this data can be used for project management, advanced planning, environmental studies, traffic operations, design, and construction—it opens up a future of possibilities.” Additionally, the new corridor management directive will allow these tools to be used more efficiently than working on a project-by-project basis. “It’s kind of like having a Ferrari and being stuck in traffic,” he says. “Applying this technology regionally is like taking the Ferrari on the open road.”

But where does that leave the colorful individuals who love climbing up and down hills?  Despite the drop in their numbers, due largely to the application of more efficient technologies, Ricketson believes there will always be a need for field engineers. The job is changing, however, to more of a “field to finish” concept, and the surveyor of today has to be much better educated and tech-savvy than previously. “So we are changing along with the job, because I don’t want the Office of Surveys to go the way of the mechanical Smith-Corona typewriter.”

Not that he doesn’t value old tools and technologies. Ricketson is intensely interested in the history of land surveying, which goes back to the beginning of this country. He hopes to pass along this enthusiasm to all employees and guests who visit the District Office Building’s future museum, which he is in charge of planning. Possibly to be called the District 7 W. Lewis Clarke Transportation Museum (both for the District’s first director and because his name also recalls the Lewis and Clark expeditions), Ricketson envisions the space as a “living museum” with revolving displays that highlight some of the divisions that don’t get as much attention as others. Look for it to open some time this summer, along with a dedicated museum website.

“Whenever there’s change, I see it as opportunity,” he says. With Ricketson at the helm, Surveys should continue to be pivotal to Caltrans well into the future.