After some 20 years in the structural engineering field, Leo Fernandez was at a crossroads. For most of his career, Leo specialized in bridge engineering, but in 2013 he decided to follow a different path and took a position in the rail and transit sector. And while that work was both interesting and rewarding, he couldn’t quite shake his fascination for bridges. It was that affinity for all things suspended, cable-stayed, arched and trussed that brought him to Thornton Tomasetti earlier this spring.
Leo brings a wealth of experience in the inspection, analysis, rehabilitation and design of roadway, rail and pedestrian bridges to his new position as a vice president in the Weidlinger Transportation practice. Based in the Wall Street, New York office, he reports to Sam Summerville.
Leo was most recently the department head of the structural group for Stantec’s New York City office, charged with providing structural services and project management for a range of transit and rail projects. His role included serving as the account manager for the MTA Long Island Rail Road, for which he was involved in a comprehensive structural assessment of the New York commuter rail system’s bridges, tunnels culverts and high tension towers across some 700 miles of track.
Since starting at Thornton Tomasetti, Leo has been familiarizing himself with the firm and its projects and meeting with senior management. He is already busy with bridge projects, including assisting with document review for the Manhattan Bridge component rehabilitation effort. He is also helping Theresa Fallon with the Boston Road Bridge project in the Bronx. We are providing data collection and analysis services to the New York City Department of Transportation for a future rehabilitation project.
Leo walking the cables of New York City’s Throgs Neck Bridge in 2003.
Born and raised in the Philippines, Leo had studied architecture at the University of the Philippines in Manila. While in his second year, his family relocated to the United States and he continued his studies at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville as a civil engineering major. During his career, Leo worked for such firms as Parsons, HDR and TranSystems and built up a solid project portfolio of transportation work for both public and private sector clients, primarily in the New York metro region. His credits include providing engineering services for the AirTrain at both Newark Liberty and John F. Kennedy international airports, rehabilitation work at the Verrazano Narrows and Williamsburg bridges, repair work at the Henry Hudson and Tappan Zee bridges and more recently, the award-winning rehabilitation of the High Bridge in Bronx, New York.
“I have worked on several transportation and infrastructure projects,” he said. “My favorite part of the job is working closely with the client and contractor in order to achieve our project goals. Collaboration and coordination are where I excel.”
Recently, Leo talked about his new role at Thornton Tomasetti, bridges, the infrastructure crisis and the opportunities that exist with alternative delivery projects.
Welcome to Thornton Tomasetti.
Thank you. I am very excited to be here. Thornton Tomasetti’s Weidlinger Transportation practice has a history of really great bridge projects. I am looking forward to getting back into that work.
What is it about bridges and long-span bridges in particular that you find so interesting?
Long-span bridges are both technically challenging and aesthetic, which really appeals to my engineering and architecture background. You have form and function coming together to create a beautiful structure.
What are some of the things you will be doing at Thornton Tomasetti?
I am charged with helping to manage current and future projects. I have a good deal of project management experience, and I am familiar with many of the clients that the firm works with, such as the New York City Department of Transportation, MTA Bridges and Tunnels and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. I will also be assisting with staffing coordination and workload projections, which were among my primary responsibilities at both TranSystems and Stantec, making sure that the engineers were fully utilized and had what they needed to grow and develop their careers.
Another key responsibility is business development. I will be assisting with proposal preparation and reaching out to clients and industry partners to keep up with what is going on within the sector and to find out about potential opportunities. Right now, clients are moving toward alternative delivery methods, such as design-build and public-private partnerships (P3). We want make sure that we have the right approach and resources to not only pursue these projects, but also participate in them.
It is the combination of form and function of long-span bridges that appeals to Leo. Here he is inspecting the High Bridge over the Harlem River.
What is the right approach for alternative delivery projects?
With alternative delivery projects, the risk shifts from the owner to the design-build entity. A comprehensive and detailed risk assessment is critical prior to pursuing a design-build or P3 project. Because of the level of risk involved, finding the right contractor to team with is also important. And having an acceptable teaming agreement with that contractor is just as important as the firm’s qualifications. For an alternative delivery project to be successful, it takes teamwork. When you are working under an accelerated schedule and every phase of the project is integrated, collaboration and communication are vital. You can’t have people working independently and still achieve your objectives. A lack of cooperation and transparency will result in delays and cost overruns.
Where do you see yourself making the greatest contributions to the Weidlinger Transportation practice?
I have experience in several aspects of bridge infrastructure, from design and inspection to rehabilitation and historic preservation. And I have worked on several types of structures, including roadway, rail and pedestrian bridges. My familiarity with both public and private clients is another area where I will be able to make a contribution to the group. Also, having worked on alternative delivery projects I can serve as a resource, in terms of both project management and helping us grow in that line of business. One way of getting more of these projects is to team up with our industry partners. Some of the projects coming up are so big that even the large firms will need help on them.
What could we bring to the table that these firms couldn’t?
Specialization. We have expertise in a range of areas, whether it is performing a detailed analysis of the bridges under wind or seismic loads or a cable investigation of a suspension bridge. We have a significant amount of first-hand experience working on many complex and heavily traveled bridges, including New York’s East River bridges. Showcasing our strengths is key to being part of those big projects.
What are some of the other opportunities, as well as challenges, for growth for the Transportation practice?
The infrastructure in the U.S., and many places around the world, is in need of repair. With Thornton Tomasetti’s experience in bridge design, maintenance and rehabilitation projects, there will be plenty of opportunities. With public sector clients, however, funding can be an issue. Some projects are part of capital programs for which funding has been set aside, while others are not. So alternative delivery methods, such as P3 for infrastructure projects, are starting to become mainstream—it already has in other countries. Another challenge we face is finding and retaining talented technical staff. As an industry, we need to more actively promote the civil engineering profession. We need to keep up with generational changes and be open to new ideas.
How did you get involved in the AEC industry?
My interest in architecture and engineering started with the toys I played with as a child. This may be so clichéd, but it is true. I had Legos and train sets. I was fascinated with symmetry, building things and seeing how they worked.
What aspects of the job do you enjoy most?
I am by nature a planner and people person. Whether it is figuring out my schedule for the day or forecasting the next six months of a project, I really enjoy management tasks and collaborating with others to make things work. I also enjoy accomplishing and learning something new every day. I like the idea that we work on something that is tangible. One of the most amazing projects I have worked on was the rehabilitation of the High Bridge, the oldest existing bridge in New York City. Built in the 1840s, it was part of the Croton Aqueduct. Once when I was scaling the bridge using rope access, I got to thinking about how the last time anyone probably touched these masonry stones was in the 1830s. Now that was really something!
Leo Fernandez (fourth from right) running the New York City Marathon in 2015.
What do you do in your off hours?
I love to travel, and I am an avid runner. I have completed five marathons, more than a dozen half marathons, a few triathlons and a half Ironman. It started with just a two-mile run that turned into three and the next thing I knew, I was signed up for my first half marathon. I like the notion that anything is possible if you put your mind to it—regardless of how painful it is. These days, I run with a purpose. Instead of trying to achieve a personal best or beat my previous time, I will run for a charity or help others get through their first marathon experience. I also enjoy mentoring and being able to help younger engineers in their career paths. I have been involved with the ACE Mentoring Program and I am active in the senior design program at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey. I meet with students throughout the academic year and advise them on capstone projects, which gives them practical knowledge. There is a part of me that really enjoys sharing what I know with the next generation of engineers.
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