Sunday Profile: Elsen crosses final bridge as CDOT engineer
Call it lucky 13 for Joe Elsen, the retiring Colorado Department of Transportation Region 3 program engineer who hangs it up this week after three decades as a familiar face behind some of the area’s biggest highway projects.
Earlier this month, Elsen oversaw what was his 13th emergency repair project when heavy rains caused an embankment along state Highway 13 near Meeker to buckle and start to collapse.
“That’s a really important corridor for the whole state, because it’s one of the main north-south connections between I-70 and I-80 (in Wyoming),” Elsen said.
It meant the team needed to jump on it fast and get the work done to avert a major highway failure.
It’s a routine to which Elsen has grown accustomed during the 13 years — there it is again — that he has served as program engineer for CDOT’s Region 3 central area, a mountainous region where weather and geology often have their way with even the best-engineered highways.
“Each one of those projects is unique and challenging … where we have to get a major repair designed and under contract in a just a couple of days,” Elsen said. “We’ve always had some really good people who were able to get on it quickly and get a good repair done in a timely manner.
“It’s a lot of adrenaline, and it can be really exciting, rewarding and fun in a way,” Elsen said.
Apt words for a public works wonk who spends his off hours kayaking, paddle boarding and skiing, and who took more than a year off after 11 years working on the Glenwood Canyon I-70 project in the mid-1990s to go backpacking around Europe, Asia, the Greek Islands, Australia, New Zealand and Latin America, navigating white water in some of the most exotic places in the world.
Several of those emergency projects since he took over as program engineer from Ralph Trapani in 2002 have been in Glenwood Canyon, where rockfalls and flooding from the spring runoff are common.
That also happened to be where, in the spring of 1983, Trapani, then the project manager in Glenwood Canyon, gave Elsen his big break in the world of highway and bridge engineering.
Elsen considers himself lucky to have started his career on one of the greatest engineering marvels of the interstate highway system — the construction of a four-lane highway through Glenwood Canyon, known as the “final link” because it was the last segment of I-70 to be completed.
“I’ve really been blessed to have a lot of great opportunities just open up for me, and a lot of it was just being in the right place at the right time,” Elsen said.
He later worked on big bridge projects in Florida and Washington state, was a project and resident engineer for the Basalt-to-Buttermilk Highway 82 four-lane project, and as regional program engineer oversaw the Grand Avenue Paving Project in Glenwood Springs.
And, more recently, Elsen’s time has been consumed with helping prepared the design for and facilitating public engagement for the planned new Highway 82/Grand Avenue bridge over the Colorado River in his hometown of Glenwood Springs.
Elsen loves to tell one particular story about growing up in Salamanca, New York, south of Buffalo, where he says he “had the classic childhood.”
With three older sisters at home, Elsen spent his days hanging out with the neighbor boys who were a few years older, roaming their 700-acre spread on dirt bikes and horses in the summer and snowmobiles in the winter.
He also fell in love with the several pieces of heavy equipment their family owned, and was eager to learn how to operate them.
One day when he was 14, his friends offered a challenge, asking if he remembered how to start their D-6 bulldozer that was parked over the hill.
“I said, ‘sure,’ and off I went,” Elsen said. “Just starting one of those things involves multiple steps, but I remembered it all. Then I had to drive it up and over a big hill with a state highway at the bottom.”
He accomplished the task without a hitch. It was one of those moments that cemented in his mind exactly what he wanted to do in life.
Elsen went on to graduate from Clarkson College of Technology with a degree in civil engineering in 1982, but wasn’t able to get a job right out of college.
He recalls going into a bar in upstate New York after a long day painting houses to make some money, when an acquaintance asked when he planned to put that civil engineering degree to work. That acquaintance just happened to be Trapani’s brother-in-law.
Elsen jotted down Trapani’s number and made a call, but at that point the Glenwood project hadn’t quite ramped up and there were no immediate jobs.
Not long after that, Elsen was with a friend in the Washington, D.C., area who offered some sound advice when Elsen showed an interest in exploring Colorado and the Pacific Northwest.
“‘Trust me,’ he said, ‘don’t take another job offer until you get out there and see that country,’” Elsen recounted.
So, he took that advice and headed west, did some camping and hiking, then signed up for graduate school at the University of Colorado Boulder.
“I had an engineering degree, but the job market was tight, so I figured I’d take it a step further,” he said.
After completing a master’s in construction management in three semesters, he gave Trapani another call. By then, what would be the biggest, most challenging and expensive highway projects Colorado had ever seen was ready to go.
KNEE DEEP IN THE CANYON
As an aspiring young civil engineer, Elsen was eager to jump in on any level on the Glenwood Canyon Project, which had already gained worldwide attention before construction even began.
“My very first assignment was as part of a survey crew, on the dumb end of the tape, as we used to say,” he said.
Within six months he was given a temporary inspector’s job, and ultimately got on permanently in that capacity, conducting inspections on the various intricate aspects of fitting a four-lane highway into a narrow, delicate river canyon.
“Eventually, they let me run my own project on the No Name to Grizzly Creek stretch,” Elsen said.
An assistant project engineer’s position then awaited on the massive French Creek Viaduct, the elevated westbound bridge section between the Reverse Curve and Hanging Lake tunnels.
That particular job involved the use of a giant gantry crane that had been brought over from Europe, where many of the design techniques used in Glenwood Canyon had been borrowed.
Elsen ultimately landed a job as lead project engineer for the No Name Rest Area, which was one of the final projects to be completed in the canyon.
“That was one of my favorites,” he said of the discretion he was given to add some of his own design input to the project, including the cut stone veneer that covers the main building and retaining walls.
After 11 years in Glenwood Canyon and very little free time to do any of the exploring he came west to experience, Elsen decided to cut loose.
“I was a river guide on the weekends those first few years working in the canyon, and I would have friends invite me to go kayak down the Grand Canyon,” he said. “But I could never get away for that long, it was so hard to balance any trips with my work.”
So, in 1994 after the final pieces of I-70 in the canyon were complete, still single and free-wheeling, he decided to quit CDOT, grabbed his backpack and headed to Europe for the beginning of what would be 14 months of adventure.
While kayaking in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, he came across a project that was making use of a sister gantry crane to the one used in Glenwood Canyon.
“I had been carrying all my reference letters with me and decided to hand type a resume just in case,” Elsen said.
It didn’t pan out, which was just as well. He had more traveling to do, including trips to New Zealand, the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico and other places where he would work temporary jobs while still having some fun.
By mid-1995, though, Elsen was ready to return to the United States and get back to work, first landing a job for a private firm on a bridge project in Daytona Beach, Florida.
After that project wrapped up, he was again encouraged to call Trapani, who was then project manager for the final four-lane segment of Highway 82 between Basalt and Buttermilk outside Aspen.
“Perfect timing again,” said Elsen, who rejoined CDOT as project engineer and later resident engineer for that endeavor. Elsen recalled Trapani relating to him that some higher ups thought the Snowmass Canyon section of Highway 82 was “unconstructible.”
Again, as with early skeptics of the Glenwood Canyon project, they were proven wrong. Elsen ended up following in Trapani’s footsteps as program engineer, a position Trapani held from the completion of the Highway 82 project until his retirement from CDOT in 2002.
One of Glenwood’s most eligible bachelors for years, Elsen finally met the love of his life, Damie Kramer, in 1998 while skiing at Aspen Highlands.
“I watched her ski by, and the friends I was with were, like, ‘Hey, why don’t you go find out why that girl is skiing alone?’” he recalled.
He did, they ended up dating, ultimately married and today have a 12-year-old son, Jimmy, who Elsen said he enjoys teaching how to kayak.
Elsen, 54, said each project he has been involved with has presented its own level of difficulty.
“The emergency projects are always challenging, because you have to get the design out in a couple of days, and that can be really intense,” he said.
But little can compare to the past four years shepherding the sometimes controversial Grand Avenue Bridge project through the initial discussion and planning stages to the more recent Environmental Assessment process, and now final design leading to construction starting next year.
Part of that difficulty was designing a new bridge right in the middle of the city where he has lived since 1983, Elsen said of a project that had both personal and professional elements.
All of the other big projects he worked on had already been through the often-contentious environmental review process, so this was a new experience that was often more about public relations and facilitating consensus than engineering a new bridge.
“I had a teacher in high school who would say, just because you have encoded something doesn’t mean that other people are going to decode it,” Elsen said. “That’s really important in the engineering world, especially when your job is to explain things.”
Elsen said that even some of the more vocal skeptics of the bridge project have come up to him and said, “good job.”
“You can’t build these projects without affecting people and their environment,” he said. “We try to do our best to shine some light on what we’re up against, what the options are and how it will impact people.”
Though he would like to be leaving CDOT with the Grand Avenue Bridge under contract and ready for construction — that’s expected to happen later this year —he is confident the project is in good hands with the team that will continue on the project.
“It’s been a great ride, and I’ve really had a lot of fun,” said Elsen, who now plans to take a month off before taking a new job in the private sector later this summer with a local engineering and construction services company.