Petko Paves Way For Others

May 31, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — Theresa S. Petko has been down this road before.

Petko is the URS Corp. vice president who manages the Surface Transportation Division, but many area business and political leaders may recall her from her stint as transportation director of the Grand Valley Metro Council from 1991-94.

Petko speaks rather deprecatingly of her responsibilities. Her office has a staff of 70 engineers in the URS offices at 3950 Sparks SE, plus satellite offices in Traverse City and Lansing, each with about 10 staffers.

And what that staff does is design highway construction projects from conception to the completion of construction — a complex process that must achieve agreement within a universe of often-conflicting parameters.

“It isn’t me,” she said, grinning. “I just try to keep everything oiled. I have no engineering training — just what I’ve picked up over 20 years by osmosis — and an engineer would be wasted in this position anyway.”

As an example of highway project complexity, she cited MDOT’s plans for the eventual Grand River crossing of the U.S. 31 bypass that will skirt Holland and Grand Haven. As MDOT’s former administrator of statewide planning, the project was part of her venue.

The project, she noted, requires bridging the Grand River east of the Tri-Cities. But because the river has a very broad wetland, she added, federal and state environmental regulations prevent the use of fill to create its approaches.

“So it’s got to be an extraordinarily long bridge,” she added, which, in turn, implies it will bump heads with state and federal highway construction funding questions. Meanwhile, the bridge must accord with federal construction design specifications. And none of these matters addresses other questions of property acquisition, analysis of terrain and soil, zoning issues, achieving a fit with local traffic arteries and so on — for page after page.

So in undertaking the design of similar projects, she said the URS staff addresses “the environment, the science part, the social component, property ownership, and comes up with a solution everybody can live with.

“I’m basically a facilitator,” she added. “The person in my position frees everybody else up to do what they do best.”

The division technically serves Michigan, but it may support the firm’s offices in Denver, New York, Minneapolis or Chicago, depending upon whether one of those offices needs somebody from Michigan with special expertise.

Petko told the Business Journal that in nearly two years with the division, she finds it to be a fantastic group.

“They really take a team approach. When the organization first started, it was more of a matrix organization. We’ve pretty much retained that. When you go after a project, you put your best team forward. It’s not a question of the top dog, so to speak.

“The success of this group,” she added, “really has to do with some outstanding achievers and how well they work together. We have people with some strong ideas, but people recognize that the value we bring to the project is as a team.”

She explained that her position with URS is quite similar to her former MDOT post as division administrator of statewide planning. Earlier, she also served the agency as its manager of program planning.

“Overall, I’m doing a lot of the same kind of administration,” she said.

But working for one of the nation’s largest architecture and engineering firms, she added, has been something of a reversal of roles. “The biggest change,” she said, “is being able to make changes very quickly. The responsibility to the client is much more defined, so we have stricter deadlines.”

She said URS in many ways is simpler to work with. “Once when I was with MDOT, we were doing some very late night work — some of it until 2 a.m. — and we literally had to call the governor’s office to get the Department of Management and Budget to let us turn on the air conditioning and lights.

“But even though URS is a very large company, we have a lot of local office autonomy,” she said. “And the rules are real simple: It’s just, ‘Make a profit.’”

Even though she feels very much at home in the private sector, she says landing her first job out of college with MDOT was her biggest career break. She said she not only was able to use her academic training with the agency, but the post also gave her a range of opportunities she doesn’t believe she would have had so early on in the private sector.

One of her major challenges with MDOT, she said, basically involved visiting most local road maintenance officials in Michigan to cajole them into going along with Gov. John Engler’s takeover of highway maintenance. One such meeting involved all the Upper Peninsula’s road engineers in a single room. Many of them were hostile to the idea, but though the prospect may have seemed intimidating at the time, she said that her reception was entirely professional.

One of the most complex projects in which her division currently is involved is a study of the border crossing between Detroit and Windsor.

The bridge across the border is privately owned, complicating an already complex set of jurisdictions. She said the client in the project simply is called “The Partnership,” a collaboration among the U.S. Federal Highway Administration and its Canadian counterpart, plus the Ministry of Transportation for Ontario and MDOT.

Fortunately, Petko said, URS’s Toronto office is working on the project in tandem with her office. “So as far as the client is concerned,” she said, “they’re getting seamless service from URS.” 

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