Darrell E. Johnson’s ability to keep a $2-billion design-build highway widening on track despite multiple risks and challenges stems partly from his experience by way of commuter rail.
A class in government at University of California, Riverside, helped as well. “It completely changed my thought process regarding the world we live in,” says the CEO of the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA). Interning for the Riverside County Transportation Commission gave him planning experience regarding transit, streets and roads. But “what got me into transportation full time was Amtrak’s management association program,” he says. “I rotated through every aspect of the organization—operations and maintenance, construction, passenger services, marketing.”
At age 23, he worked for a year at Los Angeles Union Station as operations supervisor, doing the night shift. “The day I left, I thought, ‘that was the best job I ever had’— even though I had hated it,” he laughs. “I had learned what transportation meant to people every day in a big city—the role it plays in people’s lives.”
After about a decade gaining more experience at various agencies, Johnson joined OCTA in 2003 as a planner. “In 2005, our board decided to seek a renewal of Measure M,” which proposed increasing sales taxes to fund transportation. It was put on the ballot in 2006 and passed by 70% of voters. “That was a major turning point for me. I saw a future where I had an opportunity to help develop that plan and implement it.”
Johnson still worked on rail projects as well as roads, and in 2012 took the reins as OCTA’s CEO. When the environmental process for the Interstate 405 widening had to be restarted, he decided that public engagement needed a revamp as well.
“A big part of my retooling in 2013 was that I wanted to do a better job of listening to the public—even if we didn’t like what they had to say,” he says. “That listening resulted in modifications, configurations, minimizing impacts and trying to tell a better story about what the project would mean in terms people can understand.”
It also meant listening to his own people and the design-build team.
“I have worked with numerous executives over the years who have proclaimed partnering as their way of doing business,” says Sam Hassoun, president of GLA Corp. “Darrell Johnson completely redefined what top executive commitment to partnering means. He did not just kick off sessions at the beginning of the project—he was the first one in, and the last one to leave, every single session and every single month for over six years.”
Daniel Ruiz, CEO of OHLA USA, which co-leads the design-build team, adds: “He clearly demonstrated to us how important this project was to the agency and that he knew it was essential to work in lockstep. His leadership and collaborative nature resulted in a successful project for OCTA, OHLA USA, and most importantly, for the public.”
That collaboration was key to appeasing cities affected by the 16-mile project and addressing concerns such as local traffic impacts before they resulted in true litigation. “I was clear that I wanted to hear the issues, and if we’re truly causing them, then we’ll fix them. If these were longstanding issues, but if we’re making them worse, we should deal with that,” says Johnson.
Johnson’s broad experience in transportation also informs his holistic view of the project. “It’s not only to improve the highway, but how to make the system better,” he says.
All ENR 2023 Top 25 Newsmakers will be honored at the Award of Excellence Gala on April 11 in New York City.