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Transportation industry roadblocks discussed

Four C-suite women in the transportation field shared their thoughts on roadblocks facing the industry and gave leadership advice at a Women's Transportation Seminar Thursday morning at the University Club.

“When I thought about [challenges] … I identified funding, workforce and innovation,” said Dana Hook, vice president and national strategy leader at CDM Smith, naming the three categories that contain all of the speakers’ top concerns.

On the funding front, Kim Kawada, chief deputy executive director at SANDAG, said that along with the level of money itself, lack of stability has been and will continue to be a hurdle.

“Many of you know that we have haven’t had a sustainable source of funding. Congress has gone kind of, I wouldn’t say month to month, but months to months, funding transportation,” Kawada said.

While transportation accounts for roughly 10 percent of the United States’ GDP, it receives only 0.6 percent of the total budget.

Things aren’t much better at the state level. Kawada said that San Diego County is fortunate to have the half-cent TransNet sales tax, which funds many transportation projects that historically would have been funded by state governments but are no longer in the budget.

As for workforce, Agnes Weber, president at Vali Cooper, said she predicts this will be a main challenge.

“From my perspective it’s people, people, people,” Weber said. “The biggest issue we’re going to have in the transportation industry is motivating, retaining and bringing talent into our industry.”

She said the solution involves multiple points along the career chain, from increasing the number of engineering students — particularly in transportation-related engineering — to establishing mentor-mentee programs to keep younger employees engaged and training opportunities for longer-term employees.

Laurie Berman, director of Caltrans District 11, said one of Caltrans’ biggest challenges has been innovation, for example, incorporating sustainability into projects.

The Department recently updated its mission to reflect the role sustainability will play, and Berman mentioned to several projects — changing design standards to address the rising sea level, adding electric vehicles and charging stations to an already biodiesel-heavy fleet, making pavement from recycled fibers and changing signs to a retro-reflective material that will save money, energy and personnel time.

“I think all of us are rethinking the way we do business,” Berman said. “Those are some little examples. A really big example is the North Coast Corridor … that includes not just four lanes … but transit and active transportation. I think the direction we’re going in is really exciting, and there will be a lot of challenges to address as we go in that direction.”

As for advice to men and women seeking or already in transportation industry leadership, the panelists pinpointed some required virtues: courage, a positive attitude even in the face of tough decisions or bad news, fearlessness and a true sense of caring for your firm or organization’s mission.

Not being afraid to ask for more responsibility when you feel ready for it and seeking out a mentor — even an informal one — and sponsor within the company, will also go a long way to reaching executive status, they said. And of course nothing can take the place of hard work.

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