Alumni Profile • Ken Terpstra '77
Orchestrating a landmark

Ken TerpstraKen Terpstra '77 says his work is something like conducting an orchestra-on a monumental scale.

He is the project manager for the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge Seismic Safety Project, which is really several projects being conducted in stages on the eight-mile span. And that span is really two double-deck spans-an east and west span-linked by the world's largest-diameter tunnel at Yerba Buena Island. In October 1989, during the Loma Prieta earthquake, a 250-ton section of the east span's upper deck collapsed. The bridge closed for a month while it was repaired, but the collapse raised the question of how to bolster it to withstand the next major quake. Should the old structure be retrofitted with new, seismically savvy building technology or rebuilt?

The eventual answer was both: the west span retrofitted, the east span rebuilt.

Terpstra, an engineer with the California department of transportation, joined the project in 1994. He was tasked with overseeing work on the bridge's west approach, a one-mile stretch of Interstate 80 in downtown San Francisco that connects the city to the bridge's west span. It meant demolishing the old highway and building a new one in the same place, or "footprint," through a neighborhood where apartment buildings and offices were, in some places, inches from work crews. All this while 280,000 vehicles a day continued to use the road.

"That's when I fell in love with my job," Terpstra said. "The noise, the dust, the vibrations, the traffic knots-all of it had to be worked through with residents and businesses, the city government and transit agencies. So it involved building relationships with a myriad of stakeholders, and I really like doing that."

He quickly adds that he didn't do it alone. Critical to his work as project manager are strong teams that accomplish the project's various tasks. "I use my skills to build cohesive teams and orchestrate them so they work smoothly together." Terpstra said that when it works, "The different gifts incredibly, mysteriously complement each other."

That's what he sees happening around him now. Early in 2006, Terpstra became project manager for all stages of the bridge's retrofit/rebuilding. The main task at hand is the $5.5 billion rebuild of the east span. Its new design features what will be, upon completion in 2013, the world's longest self-anchored suspension span.

It's a completely different kind of project from rebuilding the west approach or retrofitting the west span, Terpstra said. Its particular challenge is the 525-foot steel tower that will hold up the single-cable suspension span. Designed to move with vibrations traveling through bedrock, the steel is being fabricated in China. "Bridge fabrication is a new line of work for the manufacturer we've chosen," Terpstra said, "so there's some education and training for us to do. Add to that the language and culture barrier, and all of it on a project where there's no room for mistakes."

Is it a recipe for a nightmare? "It's been nothing but pleasure to build relationships with the people of China," Terpstra said. "It's allowed me, as project manager, to set a tone of hospitality and cohesive, collaborative teamwork."

The teamwork begins with the six managers and their teams that he's assembled in the Bay area to play out the hundreds of different parts of this project, from welding specifications and traffic routes to environmental considerations and media events.

"I love seeing what happens when all these gifts come together on a grand scale, on what will be a signature landmark of this unique part of God's creation," Terpstra said. "It's a beautiful thing to be part of."

To see pictures of the Bay Bridge retrofit/rebuild, go to