In the trenches
Behind every public construction project, there is one person who steps up to take the blame or the glory for its progress. As public works directors know, that is their largest responsibility, although it is not included in any job description.
For the last 10 years, Steve Varela has been the person behind Reno, Nev.’s largest — and one of the most controversial — public works projects in the city’s history: the Reno Transportation Rail Access Corridor (ReTRAC). Varela is at the helm of the $282 million project that is digging a 2.25-mile-long, 33-foot-deep trench through downtown to eliminate at-grade railroad crossings at 11 streets. The project had been tossed around for decades as a way to separate the train tracks from the city streets, but only recently did it begin to become reality, and many attribute its progress to Varela.
As if managing that project were not enough, Varela directed public works crews through one of the worst snow storms in Nevada’s history last winter that dropped nearly four feet of snow over a few days. As public works director for a city that rarely gets more than 25 inches of snow annually, Varela led road crews through the challenge of clearing and re-clearing roads and hauling off snow and debris. Round-the-clock operations and public pressure to dig out from the storm tested Varela’s leadership and teamwork abilities.
In addition to those extraordinary circumstances, Varela has led the public works department through an aggressive road rehabilitation program that residents voted to continue funding in November. Varela’s ability to balance the public works department’s growing responsibilities with the most challenging construction project in the city’s history has earned him the distinction of being named American City & County’s 2005 Public Works Director of the Year.
‘A once-in-a-career opportunity’
Reno officials have planned to depress the train tracks that run through the center of town since the 1930s. However, a variety of obstacles, including World War II and a failed bond initiative in the 1970s, prevented the plans from moving forward.
In the mid-1990s, the plans became less of a fantasy and more of a necessity when city leaders learned of the Port of Oakland, Calif.’s $1.2 billion expansion and the merger between Union Pacific and Southern Pacific railroads that would increase train traffic through Reno. Already, the trains averaged 14 per day and blocked traffic on roads in the heart of the city. At each road crossing, train whistles would sound — day or night — within only a few feet of hotels and businesses along the tracks. The city studied ways to accommodate more trains, including raising the tracks, but returned to the trench idea. Not only would it allow vehicles to cross the tracks unimpeded, it would open up space for small parks or plazas over the trench. Realizing that no one funding source would pay for the entire project, Varela and City Manager Charles McNeely began investigating funding alternatives.
Varela turned to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) loan program, which was created in 1998 by the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century. The program provides low-interest loans for up to one-third of the cost of public and private highway, rail, transit and intermodal projects. “We did a lot of lobbying, studies [and presentations] to make sure that this was perceived as a road project and not as a rail project so we could get federal highway dollars,” Varela says. “I looked at it from the perspective of, ‘What is it really doing?’ Besides being a good redevelopment project for downtown, it separated the rail from 11 existing grade crossings.”
Meanwhile, McNeely and other city officials negotiated with the Union Pacific Railroad to contribute $60 million in land and money to the project. They lobbied the state legislature to allow a one-eighth-cent countywide sales tax, increased the room tax on downtown hotels and established a special assessment district downtown to get additional support from businesses. The city will use the taxes and revenue from leasing unused railroad property to repay $113.2 million in municipal bonds and the $73.5 million TIFIA loan.
Varela proposed using a design-build contract to guide the construction and joined with others in the state to lobby the Nevada legislature to change laws to allow it. Until the law passed in 1999, public agencies could not use the contracting method, which awards one contract to an engineering and construction team that can begin construction before the entire design is complete. “I knew enough from literature and reading that that was the best way to go,” Varela says. “I also met with folks in southern California who had done similar projects, and they had [used] design-build. I hadn’t done one before, but the concept was very, very good.”
It would take a strong management team to administer the design-build contract, so the city beefed up on consultants and sent out a request for proposals. In July 2002, the city signed a $170 million contract with Watsonville, Calif.-based Granite Construction to build the trench and a parallel track to carry trains through the city during excavation. “When the project started out, Steve wasn’t going to be the full-time guy,” says Greg Novak, operations engineer for the Federal Highway Administration. “They had some other project managers that they hired, but it became clear that Steve needed to be in there full time, and he jumped right in. He still has his public works director hat on, but I think ReTRAC has been his focus. It’s a once-in-a-career opportunity, and he’s done a great job.”
ReTRAC’s size and scope did not intimidate Varela. “I was excited to take on ReTRAC,” he says. “I felt I was a very good engineer and a very good leader in projects. I thought at this point in time in my career, I was ripe for the challenge.”
Along with the challenges inherent in such a complex project, Varela would have to negotiate the public gauntlet of criticism from residents and city officials who viewed the trench as a potential disaster. “Throughout the project, there were always two camps,” Varela says. “One that supported it and saw the vision, and those who pinpointed things like the Boston Big Dig and other things that went way over budget and thought that this would happen with this project. So I was always on the hot seat with public.”
The controversy played into the 2000 and 2002 city council and mayoral elections, where ReTRAC made its way into stump speeches and debates. “People would say it’s going to bankrupt the city, and the costs really aren’t known, and there’s water under there, and you can’t design this to do that,” says Dave Aiazzi, city councilmember. “Every piece of this has been controversial, but the critics don’t seem to be around now.”
To manage the criticism and keep the project open to scrutiny, the city expanded its public information efforts, formed a peer review team consisting of engineers and public works professionals and a Citizens Oversight Committee (COC) to meet monthly with Varela to review the project’s progress and recommend improvements. “Steve has been extremely open with the city employees, business people and citizens,” says Gary Cavakis, COC chairman and director of facilities for the Silver Legacy Hotel and Casino. “He has set up a network of phone, fax, e-mail systems — if John Q. Public needed an answer, he gets them that answer.”
Trains began running on the 2.5-mile detour track in April 2004, and trench excavation began in May 2004. So far, Varela says the project is on schedule, and the trench will be ready for trains to ride through by December. “He’s a catalyst that kept the drive going even with all the negatives,” Cavakis says. “He kept driving and getting the budgets put together and getting the environmental impact study completed. He just did one fantastic job to keep the project going.”
As ReTRAC has continued on schedule and proceeded under budget, opposition has died down. “Steve’s job was to keep it non-controversial, and since the construction started, it’s been non-controversial,” Aiazzi says. “I’ve grown to respect him a lot more than I did before because he said, ‘This is what’s going to happen and here’s how it goes out.’ He put his engineering expertise on the line, and what he’s told us has come true.”
In the middle of excavation for ReTRAC, the worst snowstorm since 1911 dumped up to four feet of snow in the Reno area between Dec. 29, 2004, and Jan. 2, 2005. Unaccustomed to that much snow, Reno officials were in a quandary. “We were dealing with a lot of pack and no equipment,” says Susan Schlerf, assistant city manager. “We had people parked all over the street and abandoned cars and no city codes in place that would allow us to tow the cars to get them off the streets.”
Varela had an action plan designed for typical winter storms that identified priority roads to clear, emergency response routes and bus routes. He set to work directing city crews and keeping the public informed about their activities. “The biggest thing he did was get the crews to map out the areas that we needed to hit, setting priorities and making sure those were taken care of,” McNeely says. “Steve was one of our guys who focused on making sure we got that communication out but also organizing the troops and getting them to be effective at what they were doing to get the streets cleared as quickly as possible.”
When Varela needed help, he called on local contractors with plows and construction equipment that could haul away snow. “We actually had millions of dollars worth of contracts out to have local contractors with loaders and front plows doing the work to assist us,” Schlerf says. “Steve’s not only getting the folks and getting them hired but dispatching them where necessary.”
Varela also called on his counterparts in Washoe County and Sparks to help and invoked an interlocal agreement the three signed with the Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) last summer. The agreement provides a framework for cooperation for road maintenance, in which the four entities share common equipment rates and procedures should any one need help. “It worked out so that I was helping the city of Reno do some of their higher elevation stuff,” says Tom Gadd, Washoe County public works director. “The city was just really hammered because they have a lot of residential streets, and trying to plow those out was really pretty tough.”
As more snow fell throughout January, Varela stayed out front and led Reno’s public works efforts, including continuous road clearing and communicating with the public to keep residents aware of the city’s progress. “He’s calm and cool under those kinds of conditions,” says Shaun Carey, Sparks city manager. “He’s a clear thinker in times of high stress.”
After digging out from the storm, Varela reviewed the department’s performance and identified how it could better prepare for future storms. For instance, Varela discovered that the city’s bus route records did not match the school’s current bus routes and did not know that some routes could take priority over others. The public works department now is communicating more closely with the schools to ensure bus routes are updated.
Public works crews were dispatched to assess the conditions of the roads following the storm. “We had one street in Reno that fell apart in about a week, but for the most part, we did not have a lot of the damage that we thought we were going to have,” says Gary Stockhoff, chief public works deputy director. “After thinking about it, we could attribute it back to the fact that over the last eight years we had [a] very aggressive maintenance program in place.”
That maintenance program began soon after Varela became public works director when he created a street maintenance strategic plan to repair roads that had been neglected for several years. “We have [some] of the harshest conditions in the whole world for pavement,” Stockhoff says. “The maintenance saved us greatly from more damage as a result of the storm that we had last winter.”
The program is funded by property taxes that residents voted last November to sustain at the current rate for 10 more years. “There were a number of years when Reno underinvested in that type of operation and they were having some severe problems, and that’s been turned around in the last 10 years or so,” says Derek Morse, deputy director for RTC. “They’re making greater investments, and they’re keeping up the roadway system. That’s wise management.”
Varela also has created a sewer maintenance strategic plan to ensure the city’s wastewater infrastructure can accommodate the region’s growth. “We have portions of town that the infrastructure is well over 60 years old,” Varela says. “It was built with material that was not designed to last that long. In order to prevent sewer collapses and failures, we need to pay to start rehabilitating that.”
By regularly delivering on promises and exceeding expectations, Varela has built a reputation as a strong, steady leader and a man who gets jobs done. “He’s inspiring,” says Carey, who worked as an engineering intern for Reno in the late 1970s when Varela was the city engineer. “He was out there to really make Reno a better place, and if I could say one thing about Steve Varela, he’s accomplished that. Reno is a better place for him being a public works director.”
Steve Varela at a glance
Title: Reno, Nev., Public Works Director/City Engineer
Years in current position: 10 Age: 54
Education: Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering from University of California, Berkeley; graduated with honors 1974. Post-graduate studies in public administration at California State University, Hayward
Career firsts: Led Reno’s first downtown redevelopment project in late 1980s; wrote the city’s first design standards for new development, 1988; Jointly worked on team that created Nevada’s first impact fee program for streets, 1990; led the first design-build project in Nevada: Reno ReTRAC
Secret to ReTRAC’s success: “Building relationships of trust and hiring the best consultants we could find.”
Mentor: Reno City Manager Charles McNeely. “He is an extremely good manager, a very good leader and he doesn’t take ‘No’ for an answer.”
Favorite movie and TV show: Saving Private Ryan and Scientific America
Family: Married 35 years, father of 3, grandfather of 6
Personal interests: Table tennis. Formerly ranked No. 1 in Nevada, national top 10 junior and senior over 50