Elsen followed the yellow paint road to Glenwood Springs
Post Independent Staff
A few specks of paint, flicked from Joe Elsen’s arm in an upstate New York bar in 1983, started a trail that led to a career in Colorado, a wife and a new baby boy.
Elsen, 42, was chosen earlier this year to replace Ralph Trapani as the Colorado Department of Transportation’s Region 3 program engineer.
Elsen chuckles when he tells about how he came to call Trapani to ask for his first job all those years ago. The story begins with a sly grin and, “I was in a bar in Ellicottville, New York …”
Elsen had earned his degree in civil engineering from Clarkson College of Technology in 1982, but the job market was tight, so he was painting houses for a living. Elsen stopped into the bar for a beer after work one night. An acquaintance noticed Elsen’s paint-specked arms, then flicked off two or three specks with his middle finger and joked, “So, Joe, what are you doing with that fancy degree in civil engineering from Clarkson?”
To paraphrase the ensuing conversation, Elsen told the guy to “get lost,” and said if he was so smart, he should help him find a job.
“He said, `My brother-in-law is a big shot with the highway department in Glenwood Springs, Colorado. They are going to build, like, 40 bridges and eight tunnels,'” Elsen recalled.
Elsen asked, “Do you have his phone number?” When the guy said yes, Elsen asked the barmaid for a napkin and pen. “So I called him,” Elsen said.
The Colorado Department of Transportation was just starting the Interstate 70 project through Glenwood Canyon. This was just after the oil shale bust, and Trapani, who headed the canyon project, told Elsen that people with master’s degrees were washing dishes, and there wasn’t “diddly squat” going on.
“I had no idea who this guy is, but I’m liking him already if he’s using words like diddly squat,” he said.
After hiring on for six months as a temporary employee in 1983, Elsen worked on the Glenwood Canyon project through 1994. His positions included surveyor, inspector, assistant project engineer and project engineer. Most recently, Elsen was Snowmass Canyon design team leader and resident engineer for the Pitkin County part of Highway 82.
Program engineer means Elsen supervises two resident engineers, who in turn work with several project engineers in Garfield, Pitkin, Eagle and Lake counties. In all, Elsen is in charge of 45 CDOT employees who design, build and repair state highways.
Elsen displays a quiet, almost mischievous confidence, sort of like the character Brad Pitt played in the film “A River Runs Through it.” He works in a second-floor, L-shaped office in CDOT’s brick headquarters near Two Rivers Park. In one corner of Elsen’s office, there’s a well-worn, satchel-style briefcase that he has lugged to dozens of construction sites. There are two pictures of 6-month-old James Thomas Elsen, one picture of wife Damie, a hockey stick next to the door and a Colorado Avalanche hockey puck in a glass ashtray on the desk.
“There’s some very good hockey talent in this valley,” said Elsen, who only took up the sport last year.
Elsen has spent much of his life connected to construction in one way or another. When he was growing up, his neighbors operated a small construction company about 100 yards from the Elsen family’s front door. “There were two brothers 10 years older than me. They needed a little brother to hold things and stuff like that. I learned to weld when I was 10,” he said.
One day when Elsen was 12, the brothers asked if he remembered how to start their D6 bulldozer. “There are 20 things you have to remember to start it,” Elsen said.
After Elsen started the bulldozer, the brothers told him to bring it down to the shop. “I’m thinking I remember how to start it, but I wasn’t sure how to run it,” he said.
Elsen managed to maneuver the bulldozer to the shop, but to this day marvels at the brothers’ trust. “They didn’t say `Hey. You’re just a 12-year-old kid.’ They saw my enthusiasm and figured if I knew how to start it, I could figure out the rest from there.”
Elsen has been figuring things out ever since, but had some help from Trapani, who retired last year. “He was always giving me advice, and it was always good,” Elsen said. “Most of it was people advice. He said `We don’t hire firms. We hire people’.”
Much of Elsen’s time these days is spent on the 3.5-mile Snowmass Canyon section of the Highway 82 four-lane construction project. “It’s steeper than Glenwood Canyon, so more of a challenge to get four lanes in,” Elsen said.
When traffic is allowed on the upper levels later this year, motorists will get some new vistas. “It will be a great experience for the traveling public. People will see parts of the canyon they’ve never seen before,” he said.
Beyond Snowmass Canyon, other big projects in years to come include the entrance to Aspen, and Interstate 70 corridor planning.
Elsen said he loves his job. “Transportation is important to everyone. There is some mode of transportation that touches you every day. Whether it’s trails, or people on bikes or Rollerblading, that’s transportation.”
Elsen is looking forward to working with the Roaring Fork Transit Authority on its proposed Bus Rapid Transit project, which would improve service from Aspen to Glenwood Springs.
“There’s never a dull moment,” Elsen said. “That’s the short answer to why I love my job. I’ve never been bored a single day. I get to work with a lot of intelligent people who are very caring. They are all top-notch.”
Contact Lynn Burton: 945-8515, ext. 534
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