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AECOM VP Rachel Vandenberg heads up intermodal infrastructure

As North American intermodal practice leader for the company, Vandenberg works on projects involving ports, railroads, airports and highways

Based in Los Angeles, CA, AECOM is a global provider of professional technical and management support services to a broad range of markets including transportation, facilities, environment, energy, water and government. The company has some 45,000 employees globally and reported revenues of $8.1 billion in 2011.

As a VP and North American intermodal practice leader for the company, Rachel Vandenberg, PE pursues projects that involve multimodal transportation infrastructure.

More than one mode
"We have expertise in railroad, port and air transportation infrastructure," she explains. Specific projects often include more than one mode of transportation: highway/port projects and highway/rail projects, for example.

"This area of business is being driven by global trade, and there are a lot of dynamics involved because of the nature of the global economy," says Vandenberg. Clients may be public or private: a port, a state DOT or a railroad, for example.

Vandenberg's sphere of responsibility covers the U.S. and Canada. She also works with company marine and freight leaders and practitioners around the world to identify ways to leverage U.S. and Canadian resources to support projects and pursuits internationally. "My scope includes everything from working on potential port and rail projects in Brazil to coordinating with our experts in Australia to share port and rail simulation and analysis expertise, as well as other skills and resources," she explains.

The company's structure may make the sharing two-way. For example, AECOM's Australian climate-adaptation expertise was recently brought in to partner with local experience, to help the Port of Long Beach, CA prepare for potential sea-level rise and climate change in the next century, Vandenberg notes.

The North Carolina project
Recently, half her time has been spent on a North Carolina project. She's looking at how ports contribute to the regional economy, and how investments in ports or links to ports might be improved to enhance maritime trade in the state.

"They have two smaller ports," she explains. "We've been analyzing the situation in the state and costs associated with shipping goods. Interestingly, we've found that it currently costs as much to get the goods to the port as it does to ship them from the port to China. Obviously, the more efficient you can make the connections the better."

Vandenberg is also currently involved in projects in Vancouver, BC, Canada and the Port of Los Angeles, CA.

Starting out
Vandenberg grew up in California. She started at AECOM in 1992 as a senior engineer after adding an MBA from the Anderson School of Business of the University of California-Los Angeles to her 1986 BSCE from the University of California-Berkeley.

Before starting the MBA program Vandenberg spent several years with the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) as a highway engineer.

After finishing the MBA she looked into opportunities in real estate development, but, "it wasn't as interesting as I thought," she says with a laugh. "Then I saw an ad for AECOM, and it seemed like a great opportunity because I was interested in getting involved in big projects."

"Great opportunity" at AECOM
AECOM brought her in to work on railroad and port access projects, and by 1994 she had moved into her first project management assignment. From then on she was given projects of increasing size, scope and complexity to manage. In 1998 she was an AVP and in 2001 she became a full VP. She still manages select projects today, assembling teams for specific programs and assignments.

The $2.4 billion Alameda Corridor
From 1997 to 2000 she was director of administration for the $2.4 billion Alameda Corridor, a twenty-mile, grade-separated urban freight rail corridor that serves the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

A major feature of the project is the ten-mile trench that carries the tracks thirty-three feet below street level, eliminating grade-level crossings and improving vehicular traffic patterns in the city. The corridor also improves access to and from the port for cargo containers. The project was started in 1997 and completed in 2002.

The Metrolink years
Vandenberg has worked on projects for the Metrolink Commuter Rail System of Southern California for twenty years. Her first assignment with Metrolink was as a contract admin, controlling budgets and managing subcontractor services to prepare for the system's opening day in 1992.

In 1994, coordinating with FEMA, she helped manage Metrolink's emergency earthquake response following the Northridge earthquake. She's currently AECOM's project principal for a $14-million on-call professional engineering services contract with Metrolink.

The challenge of being a woman
Being a woman in engineering, traditionally a male-dominated profession, has been a challenge at times. "When I was going to Berkeley, only eight percent of the class was female," she recalls.

"But in general, it's a different world now than it was in the 80s or 90s. It's no longer assumed that because you're a woman, you're on the administrative staff!

"Now I do more consulting and strategic planning and my clients are very diverse. Although the number is growing, there are not a lot of technical women above me. We're well represented in legal and HR, and our COO is a woman; she's a great leader and role model. But we have to continue working to fill the technical pipeline with women."

Getting things done
Nowadays Vandenberg's job means a lot of travel. "I know where to find the right people to get things done. I identify opportunities and look to help ports and communities find ways to advance the goals of the port while balancing the needs of the community," she explains.

Of course the current economic climate creates difficulties. "Right now there's a lot of uncertainty in the industry regarding funding and economic stability. Helping clients prioritize with limited funds and being adaptive with projects that stretch out or stall: that's been the major challenge."

Advancing the green-ports practice
An important focus of her job now is advancing the company's green-ports practice. "There's a great interest in seeing how ports can be better neighbors, and at AECOM we have a whole array in our toolkit to accomplish that, from waterfront design and buffers to shore power," she says.

"In Long Beach, CA and Seattle, WA we've developed projects to make storm water as clean as possible."

Vandenberg's current project, in the Port of Los Angeles, involves a master plan to improve waterfront design and provide appealing public spaces.

"There's no doubt that successfully dealing with multiple challenges brings tremendous satisfaction," Vandenberg says. "On the projects I'm involved with there's no manual for how to get things done; I have to bring the pieces together.

"Bringing those different clients and players together, all with different points of view and interests in the ports, the railroads, the airports and the highways, is complex and very rewarding," she says.


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