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Getting People Where They Need to Go

Updated: Jan 26

LA Metro’s Kim Wilson guides the construction of a new subway that will give residents greater freedom to live and work where they want, enhance public transit infrastructure, and reduce local street congestion. 

 

Main bearing bolts of the forward shield of a tunnel boring machine used to construct LA Metro's Purple Line Extension subway. LA Metro photo

As a junior at Lafayette College, Kim Wilson was casting about in early 2001 for elective classes to take to round out her chemical engineering major. Her advisor, a former construction manager with Turner Construction, recommended that she consider several classes in construction engineering, project management and construction finance that he was teaching.

 

The classes coincided with several major building remodeling projects underway on the Lafayette campus in Easton, Penn. Serendipitously, they also included “hands-on” opportunities to shadow the construction management teams leading those projects.

 

Wilson added the classes to her second-semester schedule, and she’s never looked back.

 

“For a year and a half, I got to walk those jobs regularly and figure out how all the pieces fit together,” she says. “When I graduated college, I knew exactly what I wanted to do, and that was construction.”


Making Connections
Kim Wilson, deputy exec. officer, project management, Metro's Purple Line Extension. LA Metro photo

Today, as the deputy executive officer, project management for the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (LA Metro)’s Purple Line Extension (PLE), Section 1, Wilson leads a team of transit consultants charged with identifying and troubleshooting issues that could derail the on-schedule completion of a high-speed subway that will connect LA's populous Westside with downtown.

 

“Our goal is to make sure that this new subway integrates smoothly with Metro’s existing subway system,” she says. “We have to ensure that all of the parts and pieces communicate with one another so that when we go live, it’s seamless.”

 

The new nine-mile section of subway, which is expected to be complete in time for the LA Olympics and Paralympics in 2028, promises residents and visitors a car-free alternative to driving on congested Wilshire Boulevard, a main cross-town artery. By enhancing LA's public transit infrastructure, it will also reduce travel times, congestion and the environmental impact of car-clogged roadways.

 

Metro hopes its new Purple Line Extension will get more people out of their cars and onto public transit. LA Metro photo

More importantly, explains Wilson, the PLE promises to improve the quality of life for many Angelenos.

 

“A lot of people don’t use public transit currently because it doesn’t get them where they need to go,” she observes. “If you have a system that limits people’s ability to travel to better-paying jobs, it also limits the types of jobs they can have and the areas where they can work, which produces a negative impact on their quality of life.”

 



Creating a Recipe for Success

Wilson was born in Fairfield, Calif., a 15-minute drive from Travis Air Force Base where her dad, a military officer, was stationed. Four years later, however, she moved with her mom to New York City to live near her mom’s family.

 

Bronx High School of Science, New York; Photo by Bxsstudent via Wikimedia Commons

As a teenager, Wilson attended the Bronx High School of Science, where she discovered a strong aptitude for chemistry, math and physics. When her mom discovered that Wilson dreamed of becoming a chef, however, the senior Wilson informed her daughter that she would not be paying for any college degree that did not offer the potential to earn a “good living.”


Faced with this reality, Wilson parlayed her academic strengths into a full scholarship at Lafayette College.


Engineering a New Career

Wilson graduated Lafayette College in 2002 with a bachelor’s degree in engineering. By that time, however, just nine months after 9/11 terrorists had attacked the World Trade Center, the job market for new grads had softened considerably. Ironically, she ended up taking a job that exactly matched her undergraduate training.

 

“I took a job with a chemical and environmental engineering firm where I performed phase 1 and phase 2 site assessments and materials testing,” Wilson recalls. “It bored me out of my mind.”

 

Fortunately, Hunt Construction Group (later acquired by AECOM), put her out of her misery. After applying for a job with the company, Wilson was invited in for an interview. She went in the next day, liked what she saw, and effectively called it quits on a career in chemical engineering.

 

Connecting with Metro

Over the next 12 years, Wilson worked in engineering management roles all over the country for large construction groups including AECOM, EW Howell, and Shawmut. Her jobs included managing subcontractors, collecting and reporting on construction data, and preparing safety reviews on projects ranging from schools to high-end retail store remodeling efforts.

 

And then one day in 2014, her world changed forever.


Wilson started her career with Metro working on its Regional Connector Transit Project. The Connector opened in June 2023 giving riders access to more downtown LA stations. LA Metro photo

“I got a call from one of my previous project managers in heavy civil construction saying that his company had just been awarded a contract with Metro to build the construction management support services team for the agency's new Regional Connector,” recalls Wilson.


"From the day he offered me a job to the day I was sitting at my desk (at Metro) was exactly two weeks.”

 

Accelerating the Future

Wilson’s tenure with Metro began as a consultant on the Regional Connector, but in July 2017, the agency hired her to become its full-time director of construction for Section 2 of the PLE.

 

Originally, Metro had planned to build the PLE in three phases over more than two decades ending in the mid-2030s. Passage of L.A. County’s sales tax Measures R in 2008 and Measure M in 2016 provided additional funding for local transit projects and ultimately accelerated the PLE construction schedule by several years. The subway received additional schedule momentum (and funding) following L.A.’s selection in 2017 to host the 2028 Olympics, and the passage in 2021 of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, known commonly as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.


Metro is now building the three PLE segments simultaneously. Section 1 and Section 2, which will take the subway from downtown to Century City, are expected to open in 2025. Section 3, which will run from Century City to the Veteran’s Administration hospital in Westwood, is scheduled to open in 2027 before the 2028 Olympics.

 

Tunneling Toward the Unknown

Today, PLE contractors are using ginormous tunnel-boring machines (TBM) to construct all three sections of the new subway. Each section uses two TBMs, each one cutting the tunnel required for one direction of subway travel. The TBMs perform their tunneling operations simultaneously.


TBMs cut the two one-way transit tunnels entering the Wilshire/LaBrea PLE station. LA Metro photo

One of the most unpredictable aspects of this project, she notes, is dealing with different types of soil and ground conditions encountered along the subway route, or alignment.

 

“We call these conditions our known unknowns,” Wilson says. “We’re pretty sure we’re going to encounter a tar pit or areas of settlement or even pockets of methane gas, but we don’t know exactly where.”

 

Recovering Schedule, Gaining Credibility

With the heavy focus on meeting the PLE construction schedules, Wilson is particularly proud of her role in recovering schedule required to construct the Beverly Hills PLE station by nearly eight months.

 

“During 2020, I was still working on Section 2 and we were trying to complete our piling and decking for the station in Beverly Hills, a community known for being quite sensitive to traffic disruptions,” she recalls. Piling and decking are the vertical posts, bracing, horizontal beams and metal plates that define and maintain the walls and ceiling of a subway station below ground level.


To protect its citizens from the noise and disruptions of PLE construction, Beverly Hills had imposed limitations on how and when LA Metro could perform its work on the subway station, effectively extending the construction schedule. Wilson recognized, however, that she and her team could use the pandemic to their advantage to craft a solution that would both address Beverly Hills’ concerns and keep the PLE construction on schedule.


Wilson helped Metro recover more than eight months of schedule required to construct the Beverly Hills PLE station. LA Metro photo

“During the pandemic, most people were working from home, so we went to the Beverly Hills City Council and proposed a construction schedule that would accelerate the piling and decking required for their station,” reports Wilson. “We knew that once we got underground, no one would ever know we were there.”

 

“With three rigs going, we were able to install up to 10 piles per day instead of the normal one or two,” Wilson recalls. “In the end, we were able to keep our promise, collaborate with our stakeholders, and be less disruptive to the local community.”

 

Staying Positive

Workdays begin early in the Mid-Wilshire apartment just steps from the future Fairfax PLE station that Wilson shares with her two “fur babies,” French bulldogs named Sage and Kobe. Between bites of breakfast— fruit and yogurt or a bagel and coffee—she checks her first round of phone and text messages for the day, then walks her dogs. On days with meetings, she’s out the door by 8:30 a.m.

 

There’s no such thing as a typical workday for Wilson on the PLE, but she knows it will include a whirlwind of e-mails, text messages and meetings with PLE contractors, stakeholders and local officials to address concerns and answer questions.

 

“I try to remain super positive for the folks doing the heavy lifting on this project,” she notes. “If there’s ever a hiccup, I remind everyone that we’re almost there and that we have to pull together to make sure we hit our deadline.”

 
Advocating for Infrastructure

PLE deadlines aside, Wilson recognizes that her work is just part of a larger, more significant movement underway in L.A. across the country to modernize public transit infrastructure. She hopes that the PLE and projects like it will both inspire local commuters to rethink their transportation options and motivate school kids to consider other career paths.

 

“STEM programs and classes about infrastructure should be taught at a much earlier age,” Wilson suggests. “People of all ages, particularly women, should be encouraged at an early age—before high school and college—to pursue careers in engineering and construction management.


If we do this right, the industry will continue to grow and thrive, and people will get to places they’ve never dreamed of.”

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If you enjoyed reading this article, I suggest you check out my profile on Joshua Schank, who campaigns daily for increased mobility for underserved populations. If you have suggestions for other people you'd like me to profile, please send your ideas to me at brooks@personsofinfrastructure.com

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