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Engineering News Fall 2017

John Thomas '86 Named San Francisco City Engineer

As San Francisco’s newly appointed City Engineer, John Thomas '86 faces big problems—transportation, aging infrastructure, projected effects of climate change and sea level rise—but he credits his civil engineering profession with giving him the tools to meet the challenge.

John Thomas '86 has been named San Francisco’s City Engineer and deputy director for infrastructure. Throughout a 30-year career with San Francisco Public Works managing billion-dollar projects ranging from subways to hospital renovation, he has often faced challenges that pushed him out of his comfort zone, but he credits his profession with helping him through. "A civil engineering career teaches you to learn and study and respond. It has given me the confidence and tools to deal with problems as they arise," he said.

Thomas said he is grateful for the world-changing career path civil engineering has afforded him. "Civil engineering impacts society on a broad scale. At the outset, some projects' goals are incredibly transformative and inspirational. Once they are achieved you just think, 'Wow, that’s amazing!’ I grew to love what I do for a living and its potential upside."

One example? The Embarcadero project—begun when San Francisco’s elevated freeway was damaged beyond repair in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Thomas oversaw a complete overhaul of a waterfront district full of abandoned railroad tracks and decrepit remnants dating back to World War I. The resulting "grand boulevard" with light rail is a favorite thoroughfare among tourists and residents alike. "When tens of thousands of people are out enjoying the promenade, it’s exciting to see all the effort come to fruition," Thomas said.

Allowing the people, rather than cars, to "own the city" is something Thomas aspires to. "We’re adapting to a changing world. How do we take a small city with a growing population and increasing density and still have mobility? We have to look ahead for ways to adapt," said Thomas, who commutes daily on his bike and Caltrain.

Adding to transportation and mobility challenges are an aging infrastructure—"our water and sewer systems are over 100 years old," he noted—along with the projected effects of climate change and sea level rise. "We don’t have the same problems Texas and Florida have had with Hurricanes Harvey and Irma," Thomas admitted, "but in San Francisco we have our own set of risks—king tides, earthquakes. We have to make sure solutions are in place and the capacity is there to respond effectively. As a native of the City of San Francisco, it is a great honor to be in this dynamic, constantly evolving role and to be given the opportunity to have an impact on the city and the projects we take on—and hopefully make things better than when I started!"

Photo: John Thomas