Award of Excellence Winner Cris Liban: Tackling the Big Picture Issues of Infrastructure’s Future
Days after California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) issued a statewide stay-at-home order, Cris Liban, chief sustainability officer for the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, was asked to participate (virtually of course) in a meeting with LA Metro’s Planning Department.
Liban suggested that in light of new travel and work patterns due to COVID-19—which could linger for months, if not years—it might be necessary to revisit the way the agency plans for transportation given potential new work patterns. “If we want to be relevant, we need to be thinking of things,” such as new technologies and materials for the system, and consider adding wellness as an attribute of sustainable infrastructure.
Big questions come naturally to Liban, 52. They spill out of him over coffee, when talking to a passenger on his way into the office or on one of the many red-eye flights he takes regularly: Can LA Metro offer sustainability training to its entire workforce? Should the agency consider building microgrids to help power its system? Can selling green bonds help support climate and sustainability initiatives? Are there benefits to an engineering standard for sustainable infrastructure that could be adopted worldwide?
Liban doesn’t stop with questions. He sets solutions in motion. He brings people together. He figures out how to pay for the sustainability training, convenes conferences to talk about microgrids, helps develop benchmarks for green bonds and brings together engineers across the nation to develop sustainability standards.
Though unassuming in his manner and dress—more likely to be seen in a sweater vest than a suit—when Liban talks, people listen.
“Anytime I walk into a room [that he’s in], he somehow just stands out. There is something very special about him,” says Ileana S. Ivanciu, senior vice president at Dewberry, who heard about Liban’s passion and energy before she ever met him. “He has a quiet, powerful image that he projects.”
Part of the appeal may be that although Liban is always developing ideas, he is also listening to others and thinking about how they can fit into the larger picture of sustainability.
“He’s looking at the topic of sustainability writ large. Part of it is standards and part of it is advocacy in the political sphere,” says Doug Dietrich, sustainability manager at Burns & McDonnell. “He’s really trying to identify root causes and challenges and reflect on how we can make significant long-term, lasting progress on these things. He’s definitely big picture. But he realizes you’ve got to tie it all together and drill down to the details as well.”
Liban is doing all this work while having grown LA Metro’s sustainability practice from a seed of an idea into one of the most comprehensive and forward-looking sustainable practices of any public agency in the nation—implementing about 150 sustainability initiatives at LA Metro and ensuring the agency’s 28 transportation and transit projects to be completed by the 2028 Olympics, as well as the full $140 billion of planned agency projects, are sustainable, climate-adapted and resilient.
For developing usable, sustainable practices from the ground up at LA Metro, and pushing them forward to build not only a more sustainable world but also one that’s economic and beneficial to all levels of society, Emmanuel B. “Cris” Liban is Engineering News-Record’s 2019 Award of Excellence Winner.
“Where Cris really stands out is he looks beyond LA Metro, to the whole region and the country, on how he can leverage what he is doing at his agency to make a bigger difference in the world,” says Anthony Kane, president and CEO at the Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure, a nonprofit that implements the Envision sustainability rating system for infrastructure.
Sustainability means different things to different people. To Liban, an immigrant from the Philippines, it boils down to “really caring about other people, doing what’s right for folks who are not part of the conversation and doing things that are innovative … so we can continually improve ourselves for the betterment of society and the place we live,” now and in the future, he says.
Triple Bottom Line
At LA Metro, sustainability translates into reducing pollution, reducing emissions and using the agency’s transit system as a backbone to enable economic development and social equity, otherwise known as the “triple bottom line” of social, environmental and economic benefits.
Specifically, sustainability at LA Metro includes moving car-centric Los Angeles to public transportation. It means using green construction practices on jobsites, using compressed natural gas to power most of its bus fleet, installing and operating electric vehicle chargers, reducing its water usage by 20%, working to eliminate food deserts near metro stations and helping to provide opportunities to the homeless.
Under Liban’s leadership, LA Metro says it has achieved a series of more than 21 “firsts” in the U.S., including becoming the first transit agency to develop a climate action and adaptation plan, the first to incorporate sustainability and climate change into design criteria and the first in the country to develop a green construction policy.
“Cris has really been a very innovative force when it comes to sustainability,” says Rick Clarke, chief program management officer for the agency and one of Liban’s supervisors. “He’s aware of all the latest developments in that field, but he’s also very innovative and willing to think outside the box. He makes sure we use the latest, most efficient equipment with our contractors, even to the level of what type of fuels are used and how we specify materials that are used on specific projects. It’s pretty all-encompassing.”
To Liban, the work of sustainability is never finished. “One of the mantras that I think I’ve instilled in every individual at the agency is this context of continual improvement,” he says. “That’s the heart of an environmental management system—we will never, ever reach perfection, but we can continually improve on what we do.”
Paul Zofnass, chairman of the Environmental Financial Consulting Group, has been involved in and observed the sustainability movement in engineering and construction for more than 30 years. He helped found and fund the Zofnass Program at Harvard, which along with the Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure, developed the Envision rating standards for infrastructure. He sees Liban’s efforts as kicking off a new era of sustainability.
“One of the things we’ve all learned is no one person makes all the difference,” Zofnass says. “It’s a matter of people learning together from each other, coming up with new ideas, etc. Cris, in my mind, has played a very, very major role and not only has, but will continue to make a particularly big impact on this.”
Liban’s efforts have been recognized worldwide. In 2016, Liban was presented the Presidential Award for Filipino Individuals and Organizations Overseas for his efforts on environmental compliance, environmental remediation, energy and renewable energy, climate change, and resource management. He also developed the idea to establish the Coalition for Sustainable Infrastructure, which now has a memo of understanding between the American Society of Civil Engineers and the Global Covenant of Mayors, with the goal of building sustainable infrastructure worldwide.
“He’s been the leader of the pack, and instrumental for showing all of the other transit agencies what can be done,” says Petra Mollet, vice president of strategic and international programs at the American Public Transportation Association, where Liban helped to establish sustainability goals for other transit agencies. “He’s a treasure for the industry.”
Liban grew up in Manila, Philippines, the eldest of three sons, in a middle class family. His father, Arsey, was a civil engineer who traveled the world working on petroleum and other projects. Though Liban has lived in the U.S. for 31 years and now has dual citizenship, he still brings an outsider’s perspective and outlook to his job.
Affinity for Those With Nothing
Liban was a precocious child, his mother Ella Liban says, even carrying a book tucked under his arms when he played outside with his friends. Though he was driven to excel in school, he also sought out opportunities to learn about the poor and underserved in the Philippines. Liban says he first “discovered an affinity with the maligned, with the poor, those who have nothing,” when visiting a squatter’s colony in Manila.
He went to the University of the Philippines and studied geology. “I had an idealistic vision that I was going to discover the biggest oil reserve and make Philippines the richest nation on earth,” he says. There, he was a community activist and participated in student government—including running for office, which he says required the precaution of living in undisclosed safe houses during his campaign to avoid kidnappings and other violent retribution. Student politics, he says, were a microcosm of the tumultuous Filipino government of the time.
It was during this time, in the mid-1980s, that he and his father came across an approved visa application from the U.S. from 1969. The application, discovered in a safe while Liban and his father were searching for a deed to a property, was partially eaten by mice and came as a surprise, even to Arsey, who had forgotten about the visa he had applied for. Arsey, who always dreamed of a better life and the best educational opportunities for his sons, took the application to the embassy the next day and asked if it was valid for him and his family. The embassy officials asked “How soon do you want to go?” Within months, Arsey was on his way to the United States. The rest of the family followed in 1988. Liban, however, stayed behind to finish his degree. After moving to the U.S. in 1989, Liban worked and lived bare bones to buy his parents a house. He discovered that he didn’t want to be a geologist and went back to school for a master’s degree in civil engineering. “Being an engineer actually empowered me,” he says.
He worked full time while attending classes. With his geology background and focus on engineering, Liban specialized in environmental remediation and compliance. He eventually found his way to the University of California, Los Angeles. There, as a doctoral student in the school’s environmental science and engineering department, his path forward came into focus. The program prides itself on developing environmental leaders with a strong foundation in science. Scientists and engineers study social science, policy and environmental law, among other things, says Mel Suffet, a professor at the school and Liban’s mentor.
“Cris was perfect for it because he had a broad scope of ideas. He was interested in not only the science, but how to use the science to get things done,” says Suffet. Liban sought out and received close to $1 million to fund his research work on risk management of lampblack from manufactured gas plants, which he pursued with a team of about 20 master’s students, doctoral students and researchers.
After receiving his doctorate from UCLA, Liban left the private sector and began working as an environmental specialist at LA Metro in 2003, fulfilling a long-time desire to work in the public sector. Almost immediately, he used the results of his doctoral research to remediate arsenic in the soil along the route of Metro G Line (Orange), saving millions of dollars by avoiding the costly removal of all the soil along the line.
Tom Kefalas, senior director of environmental compliance and sustainability at LA Metro, started in the environment division shortly before Liban. At the time, there were five full-time employees in the division, which was focused largely on compliance and had a budget of about $4 million. In 2007, then director of the division, Krishniah Murthy, under the direction of LA Metro’s board, started to embrace concepts of sustainability. Murthy looked to Liban to help with implementation.
“I have to hand it to him,” Kefalas says. “He grew that side of the house. If someone would have told me back in 2003 that we would have had a ‘chief’ anything in our department, that would have blown me away.”
Kefalas attributes Liban’s success, in part, to his vision. “I’m a big-picture guy, but I think he sees it from a whole other angle. He’s looking at things globally.”
Liban credits Murthy, and former LA Metro Commissioner Pam O’Connor, for pushing him in the right direction. “Before it became mainstream, Cris was one of the ones that saw the connection,” of how sustainability impacts the agency’s mission, O’Connor says.
Murthy enrolled the agency as one of the first to undergo the Federal Transit Administration’s Environmental Management System (EMS) training. EMS helped LA Metro develop processes that have allowed it to reduce its environmental impacts and increase operating efficiency.
Environmental protection specialist Antoinette Quagliata says most transit agencies apply EMS principals to a few facilities, but LA Metro has embraced the system throughout the agency. “He’s been sort of our poster child about where you can take EMS,” Quagliata says of Liban.
O’Connor gave Liban the motivation to volunteer whenever he had the chance. O’Connor’s encouragement “crystallized for me that by volunteering you actually affect a whole society,” Liban says.
Liban currently volunteers as a commissioner on both the Los Angeles City Transportation and Los Angeles County Beach commissions. He also served on the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Advisory Council for Environmental Policy and Technology until it was disbanded by the Trump administration.
With the go-ahead from the Metro board to move forward on sustainability issues, Liban and four other members of the environment division in 2008 started out with 32 unfunded sustainability mandates and 21 volunteers. At some point, however, Murthy and O’Connor said nothing much could happen without funding. Liban eventually went to the board with a plan to borrow $2 million to pay for sustainability initiatives that he knew would create value for LA Metro.
It took him three tries, but he eventually got the money. For even more funding, Liban got LA Metro to participate in California’s carbon credit program, in which it can trade credits generated from its use of natural gas to run most of its buses—for cash. The agency has generated roughly $120 million in carbon credit revenue that is used for sustainability projects. Since fiscal year 2018, the department has generated more revenue for LA Metro than it uses. Liban has also turned to the green bond market to fund sustainability initiatives. LA Metro has sold almost $900 million of the bonds, intended to support climate or environmentally friendly projects. Because of his success, entities ranging from the city of Sacramento and the state of California to the Natural Resources Defense Council and APTA are looking to Liban for help to start their own green bond programs.
“Cris is among those who seem to recognize that going forward we need to assure that infrastructure that is financed is consistent with our climate needs,” says Michael Paparian, a former deputy treasurer for the state of California who is working with Liban on the state’s green bond committee.
Embracing Sustainable Standards
Liban has embraced programs such as Envision and LEED. The agency offers Envision and other sustainability training to anyone within Metro and to others in the county. So far, more than 1,000 employees and stakeholders within Los Angeles County have been trained and certified in various programs. The programs are available for all of Metro’s nearly 11,000 employees, from bus maintenance crews to accountants. It’s the largest training program of its kind in the nation, says Dietrich, who conducts sustainability trainings for LA Metro.
“I love his vision,” says Dan Kreeger, executive director of the Association of Climate Change Officers. “He’s not just interested in what [employees] can do at the office, or at one project, he cares about what they do when they go home. He actually changes culture.”
Kane says that when Liban first started offering classes to everyone, Kane and others scratched their heads at the concept. But, Liban told them, it’s the accountants who have to review the money being spent, and it’s the maintenance staff that has to implement some of the initiatives. “Cris said this is about a culture change and awareness change. Everyone throughout the organization, no matter what they do, big or small, is contributing to the overall sustainability. And if they know that kind of bigger purpose that they’re all working toward, it gives them that much more motivation,” Kane says.
Though he’s agnostic about the options, Liban says ratings systems such as Envision and LEED don’t work for every project. As the chairman of the American Society of Civil Engineers’ Committee on Sustainability, he is leading the effort to develop an ANSI standard on sustainable infrastructure.
Mike Sanio, ASCE’s director of sustainability, said the group initially wanted a two-page standard. It’s now about 10-12 pages with 40-50 pages of commentary. Liban, he says, has been able to push the standard forward after 10 years of consideration at ASCE because “he has a very good relationship with everyone across the spectrum. He has a vision of what’s possible and he’s willing to commit everything to realize that vision.”
The standard will consist of performance objectives, rather than standard prescriptive provisions, that will result in sustainable infrastructure projects. The objectives will be applicable across all infrastructure sectors, according to ASCE’s proposal for the standard. “So whether my project is in Utah somewhere or here in Los Angeles, when we say that it’s a sustainable project … performance wise, we’re talking about the same exact thing,” Liban says.
Breath of Fresh Air
Bill Wallace, the primary designer of the Envision rating system, and a longtime expert in the sustainability field, says Liban was a “breath of fresh air” to ASCE.
“What he did was elevate the whole level of discussion,” Wallace says. “He’s got a lot of responsibility for the future infrastructure going into LA. He’s willing to take a stand and say, ‘We’ve got to go in this direction. If not, we’re crazy.’ That’s not something a person will typically do because they [could] risk their career on something like that.”
At the Sustainability Council meeting on Jan. 10, it was announced Liban had been named LA Metro’s first-ever chief sustainability officer. “I don’t think there’s anyone else in the world who has the grit and knowledge to take Metro forward as it becomes even more the most innovative and the most effective transit system in the country, and we’re very lucky to have him,” said Thomas Small, chairman of the LA Metro Sustainability Council.
LA Metro’s Clarke, who came from Denver in 2015, says he was “astounded at the level of effort” toward sustainability when he came to Los Angeles. “Anyone can come up with a goal for sustainability. But how do you measure it and how do you implement it? We have a group [under Liban’s leadership] that can take it to the next level.”
As in other efforts, including working on California’s Climate Safe Infrastructure Working Group, which developed a report recommending how to ensure the state’s infrastructure is prepared for climate change, Liban’s greatest skill isn’t building from scratch, but connecting people and ideas to create something bigger than the individual pieces, says Tom Lewis, president of federal programs and logistics at WSP.
“It’s amazing all the elements of sustainability and resilience he touches,” Lewis says. “He’s unparalleled. He’s a change agent. He’s making everything better.”