The Amazing Career of Ronald W. Failmezger, P.E.
Anyone working in or visiting the Portland office of Kittelson & Associates, Inc. is probably familiar with Ron.
Crossing paths with him in the kitchen as he
pours himself another cup of tea, he
always gives a nod and a smile before quietly heading back to his
office-a space filled to the brim with rolled up plans, scales, pens and pencils.
He is a steadfast worker, devoutly spiritual, and thoughtful in every word that he says.
is not one to talk about himself-a fact that made the interviewing for this article all the more intriguing, given that, stored in the man's head is firsthand knowledge of the last 50 years of transportation planning in the state of Oregon.
Many know that Ron
has been with the company for several years-18 to be exact.
However, the majority of Kittelson employees are probably not aware that, prior to joining KAI, Ron spent over three decades working with the Oregon Department of Transportation-a young man who started as one of a handful of traffic engineers and left as the head of a department that he built from the ground up.
Finding a Path
An Oregon native, Ronald (Ron) Failmezger was born just outside Portland in Oregon City.
Though intelligent and interested in learning, Ron
, a natural introvert, struggled early on with dyslexia.
found easy comprehension and enjoyment in comic books-which provided illustrations that allowed him to immerse himself in the stories without getting lost in the words.
He spent an extra year in grade school, then enrolled at Portland State University with the intent to study business.
Soon after beginning classes, Ron
was approached by an acquaintance who suggested a career in civil engineering.
As a senior at Oregon State University he
found "the practicality of transportation" appealing, and after a week of traffic engineering spent on a roadway design channelization project in the civil engineering department, he
found himself hooked on this area of study.
Light on words and heavy on logic and analysis, Ron
dedicated the rest of his
studies to civil engineering.
Upon graduation, he
took a job with the Oregon Department of Transportation
and never looked back.
Through a 3-month training program in the traffic group, Ron
rapidly gained a wealth of knowledge about traffic operations, signals, signing and striping.
Transportation planning in the late 1950s differed greatly from the nuanced, complex multi-modal world we live in today.
Back then, the automobile dominated the landscape completely.
The interstate highway system, still relatively new at the time, presented a host of planning opportunities for new traffic engineers like Ron, particularly in the Salem/Portland area.
However, there were plenty of other engineering needs in the state, and when eastern Oregon beckoned, Ron answered the call, moving to rural La Grande to become the Head Traffic Engineer after only three years working for ODOT.
Arriving in La Grande, Ron
was as "green as can be.
However, after a year spent dealing with district managers and project managers on various projects in the La Grande region, Ron
found himself transformed.
No longer a young kid fresh out of college, in just one year's time, Ron Failmezger
found himself a leader.
And when space opened up in the Portland region, Ron
was one of the first to jump aboard.
However, the transition from rural traffic engineering to a region with four large counties didn't come without challenges.
The landscape of the City was in a heavy state of flux at the time.
The Marquam Bridge hadn't yet been constructed and the 99E/W served as the only connector in a rapidly growing metro area.
Ron's workload was heavy, and working as one of the few traffic engineers for the Portland area, Ron was relieved to hire an assistant in 1977 after many years handling a burgeoning workload on his own.
One of Ron's
most entertaining memories with ODOT
involved producing a motion picture using a helicopter.
An article in The Oregonian
"Low Copter Counts Cars," that appeared on October 5th, 1961 chronicled the incident and included a picture of young Ron
as part of a traffic count group in a State Helicopter.
The helicopter adventure caused quite a public disturbance, stopping traffic and leading to several complaints by residents and concerned parents of local schools.
There was also the time that Ron accidently knocked out power to one traffic signal, but best not to linger on that one too long….
vividly remembers the historic events that challenged ODOT
, such as the 1963 La Grande flood, the 1964 Columbus Day Storm, and the "Electrical Tower Terror".
also drew a captivating portrait of the early days of bike/ped planning when he
recounted the construction of one of the area's first dedicated bike lanes, located west of Portland on Farmington Road near Aloha.
Some area residents took exception to the change to their road, and only a day after construction, the bike lane was vandalized and destroyed.
One of the innovations in traffic engineering that Ron
was involved in was the "GreenWave", based in Tigard.
The Green Wave used traffic data to give consistent green cycles, and was one of the first coordinated signal systems in Oregon.
Up until this time, all signals had been pre-timed, with no use of detection equipment.
In the years following, different methods were experimented with, from treddles that used pressure for loops to the modern video detection systems.
Starting in a career when signals had to be timed by hand, and a yellow light could last 12 seconds, Ron
has truly seen it all when it comes to signal timing mishaps and innovation.
When asked how many women worked as engineers back then, Ron
index finger to his
actually found himself going out with a contractor to physically construct a left turn lane.
remembers the first edition as a "thin" document that he
In fact, he
tattered copy to our interview, saying with a smile that he
still uses it on some of his
Ironically, given KAI's work with the HCM
, Ron comments that, while the HCM
has grown larger and more complex in subsequent editions, the overall effect of the solutions haven't changed.
said that large manuals such as the HCM
that offer clear-cut guidance are positive when a beginning engineer doesn't have as much experience, but can be a hindrance when experienced engineers see insight that might "violate" or contradict what the manual predicts.
In the year prior to joining KAI
wrote and self-published the Practical Manual on Access Management-a manual used by several Oregon agencies and one that is still in use today.
Of particular interest are some of his
comments in the section titled "Dealing with Traffic Engineering Consultants" in which he
talks about his
It is poetic justice that when the work that Ron dedicated his life to was ultimately outsourced from ODOT and the department he helped create and define, that he would choose to follow it into the world of consulting and into a firm that he so evidently respected and admired.
has dedicated his
professional life to transportation engineering and his
work continues to shape the landscape of the Portland Metro Area and the state.
contributions to the field of transportation are limitless and concrete-indeed many reading this article navigate the city via arterials, freeways, on- and off-ramps, turn lanes, intersections and traffic signals that he
helped plan for and create.