Caltrans Director Berman Appreciates the Value of Serving the Public
A Lifetime of Public Service: Public Safety and Partnerships are Key for Caltrans Director Laurie Berman
A lifetime of public service continues for Laurie Berman as she now runs the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), where she began her career 35 years ago.
“I liked the opportunities that came with working at Caltrans,” she says. “Interacting with the public, you come to understand the value to what you are doing and how important it is to people.”
Berman joined Caltrans in 1983 as a Junior Civil Engineer after graduating from Michigan State University in East Lansing. She says she has always enjoyed talking with people her projects would affect. She initially worked as a Bridge Inspector in Santa Barbara, then on to design and construction. She later moved to San Diego, where she delivered the state’s first public-private partnership project.
“I’ve had the good fortune to travel around state and work in different places,” Berman says. “I’m comfortable with innovative finance and project delivery. I know the people who work here and how good they are and what we are capable of doing.”
In 2009, she was tapped to serve as District Director in San Diego and Imperial counties. While in San Diego and having many successes under her belt in that region and as Acting Chief Deputy Director, Governor Jerry Brown appointed her Director of Caltrans in March of this year.
“I’ve worked in all parts of the department and many parts of the state,” she says. “It’s a good place to work.”
Transportation: More Than Highways
Caltrans, with a budget of $13.6 billion for 2018-2019 and 20,000 employees, has incorporated multimodal approaches to transportation, including developing rail and transit plans. The department also is building “complete streets,” which take into consideration pedestrians’ and bicyclists’ needs.
“I’m proud of the work we have done in the department to change course, so we are not just the highway department but truly the department of transportation,” she says. “We are also more partnership oriented.”
Caltrans responds quickly to transportation emergencies, such as rebuilding Highway 101 in Santa Barbara after January’s mud slides.
“When we have roads closed, it impacts people, trade and tourism,” Berman says.
Implementation of SB1
Senate Bill 1, the Road Repair and Accountability Act of 2017, provides $54 billion in funding during the next 10 years to fix roads and bridges and to invest in transit and trade corridors. Caltrans received $26 billion and cities and counties the other $26 billion. The bill increased the gas tax, which had not been raised in more than 20 years.
“This is giving us funds to catch up on unfunded maintenance,” Berman says. “It’s a good start and now up to us to deliver.”
Multiple roadways have been repaired and repaved from the Oregon state line to the Mexican border. Many are smaller projects, but in Sacramento, Caltrans has undertaken a $156.8 million bridge repair to strengthen the West End Viaduct on Interstate 5, which will enable the bridge to handle heavier truck loads. In Los Angles, the department is improving 104 lane miles of Interstate 605 with a $135.9 million project and replacing 10 bridges on I-5 to meet vertical clearances or truck load capacities with a $504.5 million project. In Blythe, a $266.1 million project will improve shoulders, ramps and 90 lane miles of Interstate 10.
Caltrans continually looks to improve the safety of its transportation system.
“Safety of the traveling public and our workers is our No. 1 priority,” Berman says. “We are working with partners to get big things done.”
The department has started a pilot program to alert people they are going the wrong way on a divided, limited-access highway.
For construction workers, Caltrans has started a “Be alert, my dad’s/my mom’s at work” billboard campaign, with photos of children, to alert drivers that men and women are rebuilding roads and to proceed more carefully. Department officials also educate those working on Caltrans projects to be aware of hazards and how to mitigate those risks.
Challenges Now and Ahead
With the new funding, Caltrans is hiring again and onboarding new people, so they understand the culture of the department, she says.
“I want people to understand the value of serving the public,” Berman says. “We need to get people accustomed to customer service and being a can-do organization.”
Additionally, the department considers sustainability in its projects and how climate change will affect the system. Fire season now starts earlier. Coastal areas may be at risk of flooding.
“There are a lot of environmental challenges in California and across the country,” Berman says. “We are looking at where the vulnerabilities are so we can keep all of our roads open.”
California has the fifth largest economy in the world, and Berman reports, it requires a well-functioning transportation system.
“Trade is hugely important,” she says. “Mexico is California’s biggest trading partner, and we are looking at a new port of entry between San Diego and Baja, Mexico.”
While many people do not think of California having snow, Caltrans has a large snow-removal program in mountainous areas on Highways 50 and 80, and it’s investigating new and better methods of quickly removing snow.
“The public counts on us to provide a system that is operating and reliable,” Berman says. “There is a lot of value in serving the public.”
Leadership Means Tough Decisions
Berman states she has held leadership positions during difficult times at Caltrans, including a period when employers were furloughed three days per month.
“To be a good leader you have to make hard decisions and then explain those decisions,” she says. “It’s also important, as a leader, to have conversations that may not be comfortable but get us to a great conclusion, to both listen and be heard. You have to be fearless, internally and externally.”
Berman says she is open to new ideas within the department and when working with other agencies, which do not have the same missions as Caltrans.
“We need to find an intersection of common goals and work together to get things done,” she adds.
To other women in transportation, she encourages them to “be yourself and stand up for what you believe in.” Also, she suggests finding mentors who can give advice and support.
“Figure out what you enjoy and go do it,” Berman says.
*Photos courtesy of Caltrans