Q & A with Steve Harelson, chief engineer at CDOT

Steve Harelson, a 1986 mechanical engineering alumnus of Colorado State University, rose to the rank of chief engineer at the Colorado Department of Transportation in 2019. In this job, Harelson leads planning and design for the state’s transportation system, which includes thousands of miles of roads, bridges and tunnels critical to the economy, infrastructure and quality life for all Coloradans.

Harelson took time out of his busy schedule to reflect on his professional life, his favorite CSU memories, and his best advice to current students.  

steve harelson, chief engineer at CDOT
Steve Harelson

As chief engineer for CDOT, what are your major projects these days? I’m gathering that the Eisenhower-Johnson Tunnel is a big one.

We have a number of monster projects. Central 70 is the largest project in CDOT history, where we are reconstructing the Interstate from the National Western Complex east to Peoria Street in Denver. The viaduct is being replaced with a lowered section – a portion of which will be covered with a lid that will be a park for the neighborhood. It’s quite an innovative project, and in late May, we plan on opening the first phase of the lowered section and starting demolition of the old viaduct.

We’ve also got some major reconstruction on I-25 both between Denver and Colorado Springs and in the Fort Collins and Loveland area. Off the interstates, we are rerouting U.S. 550 in the Durango area to get around a difficult grade called Farmington Hill. We also are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on rural resurfacing projects throughout the state.

As you point out, there’s always something going on at the Eisenhower-Johnson Tunnel. Right now, we are working on some ventilation motor startup equipment that will save us hundreds of thousands of dollars per year by reducing the electrical demand when we spin the motors up. Such technology was not available when the motors were installed 50 years ago, but they can be retrofitted now.

Since you received a mechanical engineering degree from CSU, what are one or two things you learned at CSU that you use in your profession?

There was a professor named Robert Haberstroh who had an enormous impact on me.  The thing that he hammered into my head was the Second Law of Thermodynamics ­– and the thought that anything that violates it, or tries to violate it, is in its own little way a perpetual motion machine. I see it every day in the world. Whenever there are two tradeoffs being weighed, the one that is less efficient or economic is generally the one that is trying to harness a higher-entropy energy source. It doesn’t have to be a refrigerator or a Carnot heat engine – it can be a new cement that has a different environmental footprint from Portland cement. The Second Law doesn’t care. Sometimes those tradeoffs are worthwhile, but sometimes they are not. Haberstroh trained me to look at the world from that viewpoint, and it can be enormously enlightening.

Could you describe your expertise in landslides, and how you became expert in this area? 

My dad was a mining engineer, and I spent my childhood tramping around Leadville being schooled in geology by him. In working at CDOT, I have had either the good fortune, or misfortune, of being involved in four or five landslides over the years. It’s typically exciting work, because they are usually an emergency, and some very high-stakes decisions need to be made.

On that topic, it is my understanding that landslides are a concern in the Poudre Canyon along Hwy. 14 as a result of the Cameron Peak burn scar. Is this the case, and could you describe the outlook on this particular threat as spring progresses? 

Sadly, we’ve had a lot of experience in this phenomenon over the past 20 years, with Larimer County being particularly hard hit. I think our hope is that we have a damp spring that will allow some vegetation to sprout in the burn areas before the big thunderstorms hit later in the summer. We really are at the mercy of the weather, so let’s all hope for a gentle drizzle every day or two until those slopes get some coverage back.

What is your favorite memory of CSU? 

I have so many happy memories. One of the notable ones was working at the Collegian. It was just a very fun group of people – and they were all very smart – but smart in a different way than engineers. They expanded my worldview considerably, and that experience taught me that not everyone cares what a LaPlace transform is. And frankly, those folks can be a little more fun to talk to. I like to think that I similarly rocked their worlds.

What advice would you give to a student thinking about majoring in mechanical engineering, or any engineering?

Kind of like my experience at the Collegian, I would advise engineering students to expand their universe outside of STEM. Try out for a play or play intramural sports, particularly if you’ve never done that kind of thing before. Meet some people that are completely different from you and learn to appreciate them. If you grew up in a small town, find some kids from the city – or vice versa. CSU gives you the chance to spread your wings and try something new. As someone who has hired a lot of new grads, I’d rather hire the B student who worked at the Collegian or was in a school play than the A student who did nothing but study. Don’t wait for next semester. Do it now. Life happens fast. Blink, and you will be 57 years old with sore knees.