The waters may rise
As Roseville, Calif.’s public works director, Rob Jensen hears plenty of complaints about his growing community’s problems with traffic congestion. But, when he proposed a solution at one intersection — to allow three lanes of traffic to turn left on the same signal — neighborhood associations did not buy the idea.
So, last year, he suggested a test at one stoplight in the Highland Reserve neighborhood, and Rita Brohman, the president of the neighborhood association, agreed to the experiment. “Instantly, it made a difference,” she says. Now, triple left turn lanes are an accepted way to resolve traffic congestion in Roseville.
Brohman says that Jensen’s willingness to listen to residents’ concerns and find ways to meet them is just one example of his skill at dealing with people. “[The neighborhood groups] went to the city council and presented him with a trophy,” she says. “He is just awesome.”
The introduction and acceptance of triple-lane turns in Roseville is one of a host of Jensen’s significant accomplishments in 2006, a year that City Manager Craig Robinson likens to “a triple play.” Roseville also received federal recognition for its flood control efforts, completed a major reconstruction of a key intersection, and installed a traffic synchronization system that regulates about half of the city’s traffic signals.
As with many large public works projects, the milestones completed in 2006 began years — in some cases decades — ago. In all of the projects, though, Jensen was deeply involved in designing and implementing the significant changes that have transformed the city’s infrastructure. For his leadership and management skills during an extraordinary year, American City & County has named Jensen the 2007 Public Works Director of the Year.
Over troubled waters
Characteristically, Jensen, 46, attributes the achievements to a “team effort,” involving not only his department but also city officials, neighbors and regional leaders. But, those who work with him say that Jensen’s breadth of knowledge and his ability to convey complicated concepts in simple terms is critical to the city’s success. “He is one of the smartest individuals you will ever meet,” Robinson says. “But, he has an unassuming, ‘Aw shucks’ style that makes him extremely approachable. He’s a great leader and a great manager.”
Jensen’s education began when he arrived in Roseville in 1990, soon after graduating with a civil engineering degree from the University of Nevada in Reno. He was interested in land development, California was booming, and working in the public sector meant he could help design growth policies that would suit the needs of developers and residents.
He was hired by then-Public Works Director Larry Pagel as an assistant engineer, charged with ensuring that development plans met city standards, and moved up in the department until he was a senior engineer. In 2002, when Pagel retired, Jensen was selected to replace him.
In the last 17 years, Roseville has doubled in size to more than 100,000 residents and has become a regional shopping destination, drawing from the entire Sacramento area. The economy has grown, as well, with many residents now working in Roseville rather than commuting to Sacramento.
With the growth, however, has come a host of issues that the city has asked Jensen and his public works team to resolve within the constraints of limited budgets while maintaining friendly relations with neighboring communities. By far, the city’s most ambitious project is a two-decades long effort to eliminate major flooding, which caused more than $13 million in damage in two events in 1986 and 1995. Though the project began before his arrival, Jensen has been immersed in the improvements since he began working for the city.
Flooding in Roseville was the result of overflows of seven creeks running through the city that empty into Dry Creek, a tributary to the Sacramento River. During the 1986 storm, more than 350 structures were damaged by the high waters, including entire homes that were submerged. All of the affected structures were built before 1980.
After that, the city council asked for a complete map of the flood plain and mandated that all new homes be built at least two feet above the flood line. However, that still left large sections of the city vulnerable to flooding, which occurred again in 1995. After a visit from President Bill Clinton, and with the assistance of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the city began a thorough effort to eliminate the flooding problem in its neighborhoods.
Since 1995, the city has completed $20 million in flood control improvements through city and FEMA funding. Projects included replacing culverts, removing homes along creeks, and building new bridges and floodwalls. As a result, the city has protected 481 of the 569 structures in the flood plain and reduced the flooding risk for 56 others.
In addition to the construction, the city lifted 26 homes above the flood line, allowing water to pass under the homes rather than through their living rooms. Roseville also installed a flood alert system that includes rain and stream level gauges, and a computer monitoring system that warns residents of pending dangers.
With the flood control projects completed last year, Roseville received a FEMA “Class 1” flood protection rating — the only such rating in the nation. With FEMA’s top rating, homeowners will save up to 45 percent on their flood insurance premiums, amounting to hundreds of dollars each year.
Jensen calls the cross-divisional project a “cohesive response” to the dangers of flooding in the city and says that some staff in his department have devoted their entire careers to the project. “We work closely with the city planners to make sure that all new projects meet the requirements,” he says. “All the departments work together collaboratively.”
It takes a village
While perhaps not as dramatic as flooding, traffic congestion directly affects most city residents. With more than 50,000 vehicles passing through Roseville’s streets daily, there are often bothersome backups. Jensen led a broad task force of city, Placer County and state highway officials in completing a $40 million interchange project at the city’s busiest intersection, which required an extensive two-year reconstruction of highway entrances, and construction of a new system of flyovers and tunnels that took traffic out of the intersection before it could back up onto Interstate 80.
The city also installed a $13 million Intelligent Transportation System, consisting of a fiber optic cable network with connections at each intersection, which allows engineers to monitor traffic flow and signal operations from city hall. By installing the fiber optic traffic signaling system, coordinating traffic flows and changing the structure of key intersections, the city has saved thousands of hours of wait time, Jensen says.
Working with residents on solving traffic problems has been a major component of Jensen’s work for the city. In one contentious roadway-widening project, he held a series of about a dozen meetings over a year, which helped him understand residents’ concerns, educated them about the changes and reduced their anxieties. The series began with considerable opposition from residents and officials, but eventually resistance transformed into support, and finally the city council adopted all recommendations to improve the roadway.
“You begin this job thinking that you will sit behind a desk all day and crunch numbers,” Jensen says. “But I learned as I went along that it’s critical to gain the public trust, to get residents’ buy-in to move forward. I didn’t want to be a public speaker, but I learned it’s a key component of the job.”
Brohman says that the ability to discuss issues with Jensen and his staff makes his department popular with civic associations. “His availability and accessibility mean that anyone can have a voice,” she says. “You can’t always affect the change you want, but you know you’re being heard.”
City Manager Robinson praises Jensen and his department for their work on finding solutions to traffic congestion. “It could have been a problem politically,” he says. “He implemented a strategy that was critical to the city, and he deserves tremendous credit.”
More than an engineer
Jensen did not always want to be an engineer. In fact, he began college as a music major, playing piano, but decided to change course. He still plays piano, supporting local choirs and performing at library events. “It lets people view me as more than an engineer,” he says.
There are moments, though, when he can see the results of his efforts to make a difference in the community. In 2005, when much of the flood control project was completed, another storm hit the city. The hardest downpour came at night, and Jensen could not sleep, so he went out to one of the previously hardest hit neighborhoods to see how the new project was holding up.
When he got there, the neighbors were outside admiring the city’s handiwork. “I was euphoric,” he says, as the water rushed, controlled, under bridges and within creek banks. “There are studies and designs, but until it’s tested, you don’t know if it works.”
Residents came up and patted him on the back, saying, “Great job.” “It was awesome,” he says about the flood control effort that night. “It worked perfectly. For an engineer, it was like Barry Bonds hitting number 714.”
Robinson predicts that the city will grow from its current 105,000 residents to more than 175,000 in the next 20 years and that the population in the surrounding region will reach nearly 250,000. To accommodate that growth, Roseville will need a broader public transportation system and infrastructure to meet the needs of an expanding university system in the area. “Our plate is very full,” he says, “and I am very happy that Rob is leading that effort.”
Robert Barkin is a Bethesda, Md.-based freelance writer.