Bridging the gap

A Q&A with John Willis, CH2M technology and innovation director.


Local and national policy makers are bringing new scrutiny to infrastructure investment, and Oregon’s largest engineering, construction and operations firm is on the job. CH2M, which employs 22,000 globally and around 600 in Oregon, has its fingerprints on a dizzying array of projects: managing the London Olympics and Panama Canal expansion, designing a human waste-to-drinking water treatment plant in Singapore, and innovating a new mileage-based road user fee in Oregon, OReGO.

The Denver-based firm, started in Corvallis 70 years ago, is also taking on a larger role managing municipal services. Oregon Business talked to Willis about the state of infrastructure (local and global) what it’s like to manage highways in the U.K. and why smart bridges are the next big thing.

Define your approach to technology and innovation.

A lot of people, when they hear the word technology, think of gadgets or computers. Technology for us is our people: the subject matter experts. Innovation is trying to create new pillars that will underpin our future business. For example: Innovation is looking at how we are dealing with the data that goes along with infrastructure. That’s a new part of the business.

What do you mean by data that goes along with infrastructure?

In every other business, people have figured out how to take data, monetize it and make systems more efficient. But the infrastructure space is still in the early days. Sensors are so cheap; they are ubiquitous. If you instrument a bridge, you’re getting the stress and strain that comes off every day. It’s great you can measure it, but what do you do with it? There are people coming out of universities now who have really good ideas.

Innovation in infrastructure often comes down to funding, or lack thereof.

The federal government — it’s been 20-plus years of disinvesting. We’ve seen that around the globe, where private companies, cities, counties are taking up the mantle to fund infrastructure improvements. The people that understand how to fund and finance infrastructure are the winners moving forward.

You helped develop one of those financing tools.

The fuel tax is a broken model to fund transportation infrastructure. Cars are becoming more efficient; we have cars that don’t even use gasoline. We helped ODOT do the OReGO pilot, a mileage-based road-user fee. We managed stakeholder engagement and had folks who understood the technology. It was about putting that all together, aggregating the complex into a cohesive solution. That’s really our strike zone.

How are public funding deficits driving other aspects of your business?

Another big innovation is the city of Centennial, a newly incorporated city in Colorado. We manage the permits inside city offices, the snowplows for cleaning city streets and building and maintenance. They have a city manager and fire and police — those are unionized shops — but we are the city of Centennial.

So you oversee city operations.

We started out with a part of our business known as the operations and maintenance group. We would design a wastewater treatment plant, and then compete to do 10 - or 20 - year O&M on those plants. We said, if we can do that for a little piece of the city, we can expand it. These are newly incorporated cities.

So if Portland had voted to privatize the water bureau, you might have taken over.

We’d be happy to do that. It’s not a political reality in a city like Portland, where they would rather it be publicly run. But there are cities around Oregon that don’t have the resources to run facilities the way Portland does. So they hire us full time, or maybe we split staff between 2 to 3 cities so it can be affordable.

How many cities are we talking about?

A lot. You can find our logo near Roseburg, little cities on the way to Mount Hood, the city of Ontario. And Peachtree, Atlanta. In Centennial we have very specific terms for keeping the roads clear. We either get paid or do not get paid based on those requirements. Most cities also struggle to get payment on permits. So if our fee is based on that, we’re more incentivized to follow up and help the city out from a revenue point of view.

How does the privatization model work in other countries?

In the U.K., we are part of the A-one+ consortium; we manage areas of the U.K.’s freeway system. We’re running the cleaning, the maintenance. If a pole gets knocked down, we pick it up. We get measured on the efficiency of the system. For example: We created a motorcycle that has a tow hook on the back. When a car runs out of petrol or breaks down on the side of the road, you can run the motorcycle in the line with traffic, get it in front, pull the car out of the way and get traffic moving again.

So you provide engineering solutions and project management.

We operate as program managers. In the case of the Panama Canal, we came in and described how our role as program manager would help create jobs, build more sustainable infrastructure and help out the country of Panama. We didn’t talk about building the locks. They are a big, challenging engineering project, obviously. But we focus more on the people side.

How do you hire?

In a consulting business you’re always competing for talent. How do you convince someone who is just coming out of school that they want to work for a 22,000-employee global consulting firm? That might be big and intimidating. But if you tell them there is a group of 12 people working to solve this problem, it suddenly seems like a much more intimate company to work for.

You have a big presence in Portland.

Portland is one of three global design centers we have around the world for our private industrial group, and it’s big. We work in the semiconductor space; we do data centers for large technology companies.

Your transportation group is also huge.

Our last biggest growth came four years ago when we acquired Halcrow. They were known as the Queen’s engineers. Most of their business was transportation. So overnight our transportation group doubled. We’re now third largest in the world.

DSCF8214What are some of the most exciting transportation projects you’re working on?

We just won the London-Heathrow Airport expansion: two high-speed train from London to Birmingham. We help manage the program for the client, do rail design, vehicle procurement and fare collection. We are also working on the Kuala Lumpur to Singapore high-speed train.

How does it feel to work on these state-of-the-art projects when funding in the U.S. is lacking?

We get to see amazing, world-changing projects. Of course we’d love to design them in our own backyard.

Oregon legislators are hoping to pass a transportation funding package this session. How do you rate our infrastructure?

When it comes to making investments to deal with growth, we have a pretty significant shortage of funding compared to other states.

Which brings us back to OReGO.

I’d like to change the highway funding conversation to: Think of the road as a utility like your phone or water. You are renting that space, the road, regardless of whether you have a pickup or a Prius. Thinking about it like a utility is the next stage of highway development.

Your work is steeped in policy.

Infrastructure exists in a public realm. When we get to talk to the state transportation department about a new revenue model, that’s a very exciting place to be. Because we are helping with a very important problem. It used to be crumbling bridges. Now it’s how to pay for the crumbling bridges.

Of course, you can put your name on a bridge.

The thing that was frustrating to me as a young engineer was, you’d put your heart and soul into a project, sometimes you would lose several weekends. You loved it, though. Then you get up there for the ribbon cutting, and they thank the elected official. But it’s a nice part of servant leadership, to know that you helped those people look really good.

Engineers are supposed to be modest.

We’re very modest. Not me, but the people I work with are very modest. 

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