Tasha Higgins is director of the program management division in the Port of Long Beach. Calif., Engineering Services Bureau, reporting to the Chief Harbor Engineer. She was named to the post in March by the Long Beach Board of Harbor Commissioners, after having served as assistant director since October 2020.
Her three decades of experience includes working with Long Beach Transit, the California Dept. of Transportation (Caltrans), Los Angeles County Metro, and City of Los Angeles World Airports, as well as private industry experience with Arcadis and others. Higgins was also founding principal and CEO of HigginsWorks LLC. She earned a B.S. in Civil Engineering in 1993 from the University of California, Irvine, as an active member in the National Society of Black Engineers, and obtained a MBA degree summa cum laude from the Cromwell School of Business at Biola University in 2017.
ENR Senior Transportation Editor Aileen Cho interviewed Higgins after meeting her at the Women's Transportation Seminar LA Chapter in June. This interview has been edited and condensed.
ENR: How did you begin your career in transportation?
Higgins: I’m a California native; I grew up in Gardena. I began my career at the University of California, Irvine. I thought I would be a mechanical engineer. I had no idea what mechanical engineers did; I just knew I liked math and science. During freshman orientation, we heard from civil, mechanical and electrical engineering professors. The civil engineering professor floored the entire room. He did this speech, “Have you ever been on [Interstate] 405 and traffic comes to a screeching halt, then in a couple minutes it opens up?” Everyone was like, “Yes!” “Do you want to know why it happens? Take my class to find out.”
I changed my major that week. I knew I wanted to be a transportation engineer. The rest is history.
What DOES cause the screeching halt on the 405?
You wait all that time, you finally get into that class after three years of waiting—and really, there’s no real reason! It’s actually like a shock wave. A driver starts braking in one lane, causing a reaction in cars next to it. There’s no scientific reason, other than that we live in an area with an enormous amount of people. It takes a couple of seconds for each person to react.
Before I finished my degree, I worked for Caltrans as a student in the District 12 office. I got a lot of great experience. After graduation, I started in their rotation program. They built up our experience by having us rotate among various divisions. Design, construction, planning—I got a holistic view of how to build projects.
What were some of the projects you worked on?
Back in Orange County in the 1990s, there were a lot of Interstate 5 projects. We were widening and adding bridges and HOV lanes. Caltrans was going through a statewide retrofit exercise of bridges. I worked on the interchanges at the 22 and 605 freeways. I also did design work on the 241 toll road.
Fast forward, I left with a dream to start my own company. First I landed at Metro for a few years. I got to work on the other side of table, seeing how the money works, how you distribute funds to jurisdictions. Then in 2014 I launched HigginsWorks LLC.
I was every “business enterprise” possible—WBE, MBE, SBE. I was asked to be on a lot of projects. The hardest thing is that, as hard as you work, you might not have the capital to maintain your payroll. You can’t get a traditional loan, because your company has to have a certain amount of credit. That’s part of the struggle of being a business owner.
My primary client was Los Angeles World Airports. I also worked with Caltrans and Long Beach Transit. I loved it. It was exciting, nerve-wracking; a lot of work. Six years. Everything I’d learned brought me where I was supposed to be.
How did you get to the Port of Long Beach?
I’ve always taken on major transitions, like leaving a state job while five months pregnant. I let where I want to go guide me, not fear. After six years, as the kids were older, I decided it was time to go back to work [for a company], but where? Somewhere I could make a contribution. Every leap, every transition I make, I spend months thinking about the next move. I wanted to be back with an agency. I felt the value I had to add was most heard, most implemented, and most effective inside an agency. So in February 2020 I applied to be assistant director at the port.
And then the pandemic happened ...
I wasn’t sure they would hire an assistant director. But I got the call in June. Within a year, my boss retired, so I applied for his position. Starting a job during a pandemic is the most interestingly bizarre thing I’ve ever experienced. I started to realize how relationships are built. Sometimes it’s in the kitchen, garage, hallway, surprise visits to your cubicle. I started to get a little nervous. How will I relate to people? How will they get to know me? I had to trust that these coworkers are going to like, respect and trust me.
I can say before Christmas, I felt fully engaged, respected. People were calling, inviting me to meetings. I was pleasantly surprised. The port—the people are stellar. People leave people, not jobs. I’ve never experienced since I was young such a great group of people. To this day, though, I haven’t met my entire staff!
How has it been being one of relatively few women of color in the industry?
It's been interesting—from being one of very few in school; some professors back then were saying women shouldn’t be engineers. I dropped one professor for saying that. You brush it off, get it done.
I sit in meetings sometimes, thinking, “Wow, this is amazing. Still to this day I might be the only woman there. Being a Black woman, too. But it’s exciting that I’m here. I want to stay here for the next one to come along.
What are some of your big projects now?
When I came to the port, Mario [Cordero, Port of Long Beach executive director] knew some of the struggles I was going through. He asked me to lead a diversity and procurement group. We’re passionate about being able to get minorities and women and underutilized businesses learn how to do business with agencies. We’re helping to bring some awareness and increase participation at the port.
We’re part of the national effort Equity in Infrastructure Project led by Phil Washington. We partner with Denver International Airport, Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, Chicago Transit Authority, and Southeast Pennsylvania Transportation Authority. We’re committed by 2025 to increase the work of minority businesses—not just as subs, but as primes. The infrastructure law dollars are helping federal projects do just that.
The other part of the pledge is increasing sharing of information among our agencies. We’re going to come up with ways to improve certification process and find ways for small businesses to form equity partnerships.
The port’s ten-year capital program is about $4 billion this point. The projects are exciting—the lion’s share is the Pier B On-Dock Rail Facility that will take ship containers off trucks and onto rail. That will take us through 2032.