Writer: Tiffany Acosta
Panorama, October 2015
The interstate highway system revolutionized travel in the United States in the 1950s, allowing people and cargo to reach their destinations far more efficiently than ever before. Now, more than 60 years later, three New Mexico State University alums are working on a project to help change the face of travel in the country once again.
Jorge Granados, Terry Ogle and David Vallejos, three of the eight members of NMSU’s civil engineering graduating class of 1987, are working on the California High-Speed Rail project. This initiative will build the country’s first high-speed rail system, which is the largest infrastructure project currently underway in the united States.
The 520-mile, $68 billion California High-Speed Rail project will connect the major cities in the state. The San Francisco-Los Angeles route is expected to be in operation by 2029, and will travel through Merced, Fresno, Bakersfield and Palmdale. The trip will last less than three hours.
Eventually, the plan is to extend the project to Sacramento and San Diego, spanning 800 miles with 24 stations. In 2022, the initial section of service is expected to begin operations from Merced to the San Fernando Valley.
An urgent need
“This project is important on a national, statewide and local scale,” says Ogle, Central Valley regional delivery manager. “California needs another transportation alternative. California’s poplulation is expected to grow by 25 percent over the next 30 years. That means by 2050, 50 million people will live in California. Anyone living or visiting L.A. or the Bay Area knows how congested the traffic is now; imagine what it’ll be like with 50 million people trying to get around.
“The existing transportation system will be maxed out,” Ogle continues. “Highways will be more congested, airports will be congested and more flights delayed. High-speed rail provides another cost-effective and cleaner alternative to driving or flying. Other countries around the world that have invested in a high-speed rail system have seen their ridership expand and short-haul, commuter-type flights reduced significantly.”
Granados, the design and construction manager for a 65-mile design-build contract for the project, agrees.
“We are becoming a society that wants to have the quality of life that the rural areas have to offer, and will commute through congested roads for hours to work in major cities,” Granados says. “High-speed rail will provide the opportunity for individuals to live in rural areas and commute into major cities on the train in half the time it would take to drive, without the stresses involved in traveling congested freeways, and reduce the pollution of our air by replacing the automobile with nonpolluting electric trains.”
Heavy construction work started in mid-June on the 29-mile stretch between Madera and Fresno counties.
The project was started in the Central Valley region for many reasons. It received federal funds through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 and is one of the fastest-growing areas in California over the past decade. While California has seen a 10 percent population increase statewide, the Central Valley has seen a 17 percent population increase in the last 10 years. The region includes Fresno, with a population of 500,000, and Bakersfield, with a population of 360,000.
In the Central Valley, the project is expected to create 20,000 jobs per year for five years in an area with one of the highest unemployment rates in the U.S.
“The project will relieve traffic congestion, reduce emissions, protect the environment for the future and reduce stress,” Vallejos, a project construction engineer, says. “This will change California forever.”
The high-speed rail project can contribute to a cleaner environment in California by improving the air quality, which is vital to reversing the upward trend in asthma cases. The project has committed to recycling 100 percent of the steel and concrete during construction.
A model for the nation
With the construction of the nation’s first bullet train now underway, the engineers hope to inspire the rest of the country to follow.
“In April 2015, Jorge and I got to accompany a group from California High-Speed Rail to Italy to ride their high-speed train system,” Ogle says. “It was a unique and pretty awesome experience to realize this is what we are working to build in California.
“I look at it this way: In 1956, the Interstate Highway System was authorized in the Federal Aid Highway Act. it took 35 years to complete,” Ogle continues. “Now, it is not going to take that long to construct the California High-Speed Rail system. This should inspire the U.S. to have a nationwide high-speed rail system.”
Vallejos acknowledges that the world is watching California’s high-speed rail project. Granados believes high-speed rail will move across the country, and the Central Valley will be the birthplace of high-speed rail in the U.S.
The Aggie connection
So how do three Aggies end up working together on the largest infrastructure project the country has seen in the last 60 years? After graduation, the trio was hired by the California Department of Transportation. While at NMSU, the three attended many of the same classes.
“I think we have become better friends over the years we have been here in California,” Ogle says. “Jorge and I have worked with each other for a number of years at the Department of Transportation. David has come and gone as his work has taken him to other parts of the state.”
In addition to their friendship that has spanned nearly 30 years, Granados, Ogle and Vallejos recall the relationships they built in the College of Engineering.
“I remember our trip to Washington, D.C. for Associated General Contractors with the department head, Dr. Conrad Keyes, and how we were treated by faculty,” he says. “Field trips in geology and earth structures with Dr. Tim Ward, and the passion that they had to teach us. The survey and hydraulic labs provided real hands-on experience versus learning only by books.”
Ogle, a Thoreau, New Mexico, native, reminisces about the time spent working on homework in the civil engineering student lounge in Jett Hall just hours before it was due. He adds that William C. McCarthy, Saumuel P. Maghgard, ken White, Jesse Lunsford and Keyes were come of his favorite professors.
Vallejos, who is a Las Cruces native, says his favorite memories from NMSU include the friends he made and the relationship he cultivated with his professor and adviser, Lunsford, who was a driving force in his becoming and engineer.
“I had no choice,” Vallejos recalls. “I came over one evening to take his daughter out and he asked me to join him in the kitchen. he said if I was going to marry his daughter, I was going to school. Son on the kitchen counter he had my college applications, Pell grant applications, class schedule and appointment for a job interview. So all I had to do was sign the papers, since they were all filled out, and go to the job interview.”
While a high school romance began Vallejos’ engineering career, Granados and Ogle decided to pursue engineering for the love of building things.
“My dad was my fifth-grade school teacher, and on his bulletin board in his classroom he had a picture of a construction site with heavy equipment working on the site,” Ogle says. “I remember thinking, I want to build things. My dad would always encourage my brother and me to pursue engineering because we liked math and science.” Ogle’s brother Kevin Ogle ’91, also earned an engineering degree from NMSU.
Besides their time in engineering, the trio also enjoyed attending Aggie basketball games, spending time in the Corbett Center, playing intramural sports, tubing down the Rio Grande and eating enchiladas at El Sombrero Patio Café.
While most of the NMSU community isn’t affected by the daily traffic problems in California, the work of three Aggies will have an impact on how people travel — not only in the Golden State, but maybe also across the country.