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February 2006
Navigating the Transportation Industry
By Casey Jacobus

Ralph Whitehead, an engineering graduate of North Carolina State in 1950, founded Ralph Whitehead Associates (RWA) in Atlanta in 1959 and soon after moved the young firm to Charlotte in 1961. Almost immediately Whitehead landed an important street and grade separation project for the city, the first of more than 100 projects RWA would design in Charlotte over the next quarter century.

To date, those projects have included site work for the Two First Union Tower and the Panthers Stadium, the Charlotte Vintage Trolley, the Independence Boulevard Busway, structures on the South Transit Corridor, the extension of Tyvola Road from Fairview Road to the Coliseum area, and the recent widening of I-77.

“The city has had a long history with RWA over the last several decades,” says city engineer Jim Schumacher. “They’ve done very competent work for us over and over again.”

The early focus of RWA was to provide design services to municipalities, state DOT’s and major railroads such as Southern Railway (now Norfolk Southern) and ACL RR (now CSX Transportation). This focus set the stage for the company’s long-term strategic plan – to grow the company into all facets of civil/transportation engineering.

Today, Ralph Whitehead Associates has a staff of 155 employees. The corporate headquarters remains in Charlotte, while the firm also has offices in Atlanta, Ga.; Charleston, S.C.; Jacksonville, Fla.; Kansas City, Kan.; Raleigh, N.C.; Richmond, Va.; and Rock Hill, Md. In addition to these offices, RWA has over 25 field staff employees working in satellite locations all across the eastern United States. This geographic diversity makes it possible for the firm to serve clients from Michigan to Texas and from Florida to New England.

Traditionally, civil engineers do the construction plans for streets, highways, railroads, bridges, and dams, as well as site work and utility systems for building sites. Over the years RWA has designed everything from railroads and roadways to bridges and transit systems. In recent years, it has also expanded its services to include storm water management, environmental services, geotechnical engineering, utilities, and design/build projects.

In 1990, Ralph Whitehead sold his company to seven staff members, including Ed Jenkins, Bob Baughman, and Stuart Matthis. Whitehead stayed on as chairman for two years before retiring. He passed away in 2004 at age 76.

 

Spanning the Years

Not every child who plays with erector sets or builds with Legos grows up to be an engineer, but the three men who head Ralph Whitehead Associates today did. Ed Jenkins, 56, grew up in Georgia and graduated from Georgia Tech. His first job was with the Federal Highway Administration, but after five years he left the public sector and went to work for a large national firm in Charlotte. After “butting heads” with Ralph Whitehead Associates, he decided that “if you can’t beat them, join ‘em,” and in 1987 joined the company. He now serves as president.

Bob Baughman, 48, is from Ohio. He got his engineering degree from Ohio Northern University, went to work for RWA in 1979 and never left. Baughman added an M.B.A. from UNCC to his resume and for ten years served as CEO of RWA. In 2000 and 2005, the leadership team shuffled the deck and Baughman became vice president for rail and subsequently corporate services, which includes information technology, finance, and human resources.

At 46, Kentucky native Stuart Matthis is the youngest member of the leadership triad. He acquired his B.S. from West Virginia University and an M.S. from Virginia Tech. He joined RWA in 1982 and is now vice president for corporate development, responsible for marketing, recruiting, training and strategic initiatives. Matthis also teaches a graduate level engineering course at UNCC “just for fun.”

The internal transfer of power that brought Jenkins, Baughman and Matthis to the top of the corporate structure in 1990 also set the stage for the firm’s expansion. In the ensuing fifteen years, the company added five more offices and expanded its services into almost everything related to transportation. Revenue greatly expanded as well

Although the three men share similar backgrounds, their personalities and modes of operation are very different. Jenkins is the “people person” who understands personal relationships and is good at drawing out the best in everyone. Matthis calls him the “consummate listener.” Baughman is the “detail man,” with the ability to create and operate within all of the company’s internal systems. Matthis has tremendous energy and passion for whatever he is doing and the ability to “make it happen.” Matthis is largely responsible for the expansion of the firm’s Transportation Division to the point where it has recently been split into two new divisions, one covering the southeast and the other the mid-Atlantic.

“We work well together,” says Jenkins. “We’re all problem solvers and share the same values. We respect our diversity and different ways of operating.”

 

On the Road

Building on its early connections to the railroad industry, RWA has specialized in offering complete engineering services for railway planning and design from its very beginning. “Rail allowed us to get our foot in the transportation door,” says Jenkins. “It’s the reason we have an office in Kansas City. It gives us the potential to go to the West Coast.”

RWA’s many railroad projects include several relocation studies and projects, such as the Salisbury-to-Asheville Passenger Rail Study for NCDOT’s Rail Division and track improvements for CSX over NC 27 in Mt. Holly. The firm’s expertise includes mainline as well as spur line improvements, rail yards, rail sidings, intermodal facilities and grade crossing improvements.

Not only has railroad design and planning been important to the company’s development, Jenkins sees it as continuing to be an important service line in the future. He explains that railroads today carry 16 percent of the nation’s freight with a projected growth of 3 percent a year. The railroads are particularly important for the coal industry. The lack of rail capacity is currently costing coal companies millions of dollars. With one hundred new coal plants in the planning stage and dozens expected to go up in the next couple of decades, new rail lines will have to be built.

RWA not only understands railroad construction, it also understands railroad bridge design. It has designed over 250 railroad bridges since the early ’60s and offers complete railway bridge engineering services. From railroad bridges to highway bridges is not a huge jump, but one RWA made early on. The company has designed many of the bridges in North Carolina over 1,000 feet long, including 15 major coastal bridges on the Atlantic coastline. The $120M bridge on US Highway 17 over the Neuse River in New Bern won a National Award in 2001 for the most outstanding bridge project in the country.

“It is one of most beautiful projects we’ve ever constructed,” says Len Sanderson, State Highway Administrator of the North Carolina Department of Transportation. “We consider RWA a top firm for producing quality projects.”

The company has a broad range of experience in creative roadway planning and design, including coastal and mountain highways, multi-lane streets, interchanges, freeways, streetscapes, and intersection improvements. Another project RWA has just completed for NCDOT is the $150M Martin Luther King Parkway in Wilmington, N.C., which just opened to traffic in 2005.

Beginning with Atlanta’s MARTA system in the ’70s, RWA has 30 years of experience in the construction management of major metropolitan transit systems. It designed the Independence Boulevard Busway for Charlotte’s DOT, as well as bridges and retaining walls along the South Transit Corridor. RWA, as consultant to the City of Charlotte, has also been associated with the Charlotte Vintage Trolley project from its beginning, spurring huge economic development along the corridor.

Building on its knowledge and experience in railway, highway, and bridge construction and design, RWA has also established storm water management as a major service line, beginning with river hydraulic projects associated with bridge crossings. Today, RWA is one of the leading storm water management consultants in the southeast, having worked on projects like the South Transit Corridor Drainage Basin Studies and the Masters Inn emergency culvert repair in Charlotte. And, with today’s emphasis on stream and wetland protection, RWA has come to understand and master the permitting process. RWA’s staff has a long history of coordinating project activities with the resource agencies such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, local regulatory agencies, FEMA and FERC.

RWA also provides a full range of geotechnical engineering, forensic studies, pavement design and evaluation, site environmental assessments, materials testing and laboratory and on-site construction testing services.

 

Full Steam Ahead

RWA is not about to rest on its reputation. It’s a growth-oriented company.

“We’re not afraid to tackle a problem that may be large or appear overwhelming,” asserts Jenkins.

That “can do” attitude showed up in the post-Katrina rescue efforts. While CSXT had staff in helicopters assessing the damage to their major railroad bridges the day after the storm, they had already commissioned RWA to prepare for reconstructive engineering support on the ground. In fact, RWA had bridge engineers headed to Louisiana the day the storm made landfall. Today the design for rail reconstruction is long since complete and construction will be wrapped up within weeks.

Today’s leadership team at RWA is also good at recognizing change in the industry and adjusting to meet new challenges. Forty years ago no one was much concerned about the environmental impact of new roadways and railways. Today the company has a team of seven environmental scientists on staff to deal with the ever-changing complexity of environmental regulations. RWA prepares environmental impact statements, conducts wetland delineations, manages public input programs, and monitors water quality for a variety of public and private clients.

One of RWA’s newest clients for environmental issues is the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School System. CMS hopes to build 50 new schools in the next ten years, and RWA is on board to help evaluate possible sites for those future schools.

With funding becoming a dominant issue for public works, Matthis and Jenkins say our industry needs to become more proactive and innovative in securing financing for projects. Gasoline taxes have long been the primary funding mechanism for highway projects, but no one wants to raise taxes. The federal gas tax hasn’t increased in 13 years, and has been further eroded by more fuel-efficient vehicles which reduce the “tax-per-gallon” revenue. According to both, the industry has to consider more public/private enterprises and new initiatives.

One such innovative delivery approach to highway and railway projects is the “design-build” concept. RWA’s Construction Services Division focuses on design-build and other opportunities to work directly for contractors, a change in the way DOT’s deliver projects. In the past 10 years, the firm’s design-build portfolio includes a dozen projects with a construction value of nearly $1,000,000,000. Major accomplishments include the Knightdale Bypass in Raleigh (with the LPA Group) and the Wateree River Bridge in Kershaw, S.C., both winners of major awards. RWA also joined forces with HDR and Rea Construction to deliver the I-77 design-build project in Charlotte, winning an AGC award for safety and innovation.

The current leadership team at RWA is clearly proud of their company and confident of its future. They also obviously enjoy being engineers. Matthis hopes his teenage son will follow him into the field of civil engineering because “it involves the design and hence protection of our infrastructure.” Baughman calls it “a world of problem solving and people serving.”

Jenkins agrees, “It’s a fantastic industry to be involved with. We affect the quality of people’s lives.”

Casey Jacobus is a Lake Norman-based freelance writer.
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