When he earned his civil engineering degree from Cal Poly in 1982, Randell Iwasaki didn’t think he’d ever find himself planning infrastructure that would support autonomous vehicles.
But today’s transportation planning entails much more than interchanges and overpasses.
“These days, people employed in transportation are likely to know just as much about big data and wireless networks as potholes and pavement,” said Iwasaki, who is the executive director of the Contra Costa Transportation Authority (CCTA).
Iwasaki’s efforts to modernize California transportation is one reason he was recently presented with the Engineering Award by the Beavers, a heavy engineering construction association founded in 1955 to promote and encourage the field.
“It is such an honor to receive the Beavers Award for Engineering because the nominations come from your peers, and the selection panel is made up of your peers,” Iwasaki said. “These are people who know the work, know the industry, and are building the transportation infrastructure we use every day.”
Iwasaki’s interest in the field came from an uncle, a former civil engineering professor at Colorado State University.
“When I visited, he used to take me on tours of the labs,” Iwasaki said. “I was amazed at what civil engineers got to work on.”
He eventually applied to Cal Poly because of its strong engineering record. After earning his bachelor’s from Cal Poly, Iwasaki joined the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans),where he rose through the ranks, culminating in 2009, when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed him director. Frequently honored, in his current role, he often seeks partnerships with technology and automotive companies to develop the next generation of transportation solutions.
“One of the most challenging parts of my job has been working to change people’s opinions about technology and transportation,” he said. “I worked on the first fog warning system, or Intelligent Transportation System, project in the nation for Caltrans when I was with the agency, and I’ve helped lead both an autonomous vehicle test facility and a shared autonomous vehicle pilot program here in Contra Costa County.”
Last fall, California voters opted to keep a recently enacted gas tax hike to pay for a major infrastructure program — a move Iwasaki said will greatly improve transportation.
“Transportation has not had a steady, reliable investment for many years – which makes it very difficult to plan for the future when you don’t know how much money you’re going to have for bus service or to complete projects,” he said. “Hopefully, this funding will be used not only to fix the most vulnerable parts of our system, but also to plan for the future.”
Iwasaki has remained connected to Cal Poly, where he was named Honored Alumni in 2017. Iwasaki donated an Intelligent Transportation Systems Laboratory to the College of Engineering and serves on the advisory boards for both the college and the Civil and Environmental Engineering department. He also supports the student chapter of the Institute of Transportation Engineers at Cal Poly through visits to campus, guest lectures and mentorship.
“He’s just an amazing example of an innovative leader,” Ellen Cohune, executive vice president of the Cal Poly Alumni Association, said in this video spotlighting him for earning the Sandra Gardebring Ogren Leadership Award.
Cal Poly, Iwasaki said, provided him with experiential learning.
“You didn’t just learn about how to survey,” he said. “You were required to go out and do it.”
That Learn by Doing approach, he said, prepared him once he began his distinguished transportation career.
“I remember in my very first job surveying with Caltrans, the old timers would try to test or trick the newer employees, and having had the experience of actually doing the work really paid off for me,” he said. “I knew how to do the work.”