Andy Auxier: The young guy in charge of building KC’s streetcar line

08/16/2014 7:00 AM

08/16/2014 7:47 PM

Andy Auxier has no trouble remembering the events of one week last November.

That was when, on the new Main Street bridge over Interstate 670 downtown, Kansas City’s first stretch of 21st-century streetcar track was laid.

It was also the week his wife went into labor early with their first child, less than a month after they’d arrived in Kansas City.

Auxier, wearing his brown hard hat covered with decals, shares this story while leading a tour along Main to demonstrate just what the Kansas City streetcar project has wrought so far.

Lots of orange cones, for starters. Closed lanes, creeping traffic, construction guys everywhere, loud equipment and trenches in the middle of the street. A similar scene has played out this summer in the River Market.

It’s a typically warm July morning, a bit before 9 — not early for Auxier, who gets to work at 6:30 a.m. On the I-670 bridge, he indulges a photographer by sprawling flat on his back in the middle of the streetcar track, although he grumbles about presenting a bad safety message. Heck, at least two of his hat decals mention “safety.”

Auxier turns back south, past Anton’s Taproom, a place he likes for grabbing a drink after work, and Gallup Map Co., which is advertising 1914 KC streetcar maps.

News flash: Kansas City is getting a new streetcar line.

Auxier is the guy who’s here to get it built.

The big question now, in the wake of the recent election, is: Will it ever get beyond the 2.2-mile starter line? Will KC end up with one of the shortest streetcar lines in the country?

An early career start

Auxier — “I guarantee it sounds a lot prettier in French,” but he says it ox-ear — is the project manager overseeing construction of the streetcar route, which will run from the River Market south to Union Station and back, about 4 miles of track in all. The company he works for, Stacy and Witbeck Inc., headquartered in Alameda, Calif., calls Auxier a senior project manager.

He is just 32 years old.

His age comes as a surprise even to people he works with every day. Project superintendent Bill Larrabee, for instance, who was along for the Main Street tour, guessed him to be a young-looking 37 or 38.

Another shocker: Auxier has worked for Stacy and Witbeck for 13 years, starting when he was … 19.

That part, Larrabee knows. “He’s been in the trenches with everybody else,” Larrabee says. “It’s nice working with somebody like that.”

As a teenager growing up in Sherwood, Ore., Auxier was “always into wood shop.” One summer he made and sold Adirondack chairs.

Though he’d considered becoming an architect, he changed his mind after taking two engineering classes in high school. At Oregon State University he majored in construction engineering management.

When Auxier was looking for a summer job as a freshman, his former engineering teacher put him in touch with a friend, John Bollier, who at the time was vice president of, yes, Stacy and Witbeck. The company specializes in building streetcar lines.

Auxier landed a paid internship with Bollier’s firm, which was just starting work on a light-rail project in downtown Portland. He spent two more summers and school breaks as an intern. And just before his senior year, Stacy and Witbeck offered him a full-time job upon his graduation.

None of his friends had jobs lined up that early.

Once he was done with school, Auxier started climbing the ladder. Field engineer. Project engineer. Construction manager. He has worked mostly in Portland, which boasts the country’s biggest modern streetcar system, as well as two years in Sacramento, Calif., on a light-rail extension to a downtown Amtrak station.

And now, just 10 years out of college, he’s one of a handful of senior project managers at his company. And one of no more than a dozen his age across the country running what the industry calls a “heavy civil construction” job of this size, says Bollier, now Stacy and Witbeck’s CEO.

Last year Mass Transit magazine named Auxier one of its “Top 40 Under 40,” honoring professionals “who have made significant contributions to the public transit industry.”

“He was really fortunate to find his niche so early,” his wife, Cindy, says.

“I’ve pinnacled, I guess,” Auxier jokes.

He learned in the spring of 2013 that coming to Kansas City was a possibility, which happened to be welcome news: Cindy, having attended nursing school at the University of Missouri-Kansas City for five years, knew the city well.

Cindy, too, had grown up in Sherwood, about 40 miles from Portland. Although they attended the same middle school and high school and played soccer, they didn’t hang out.

After Cindy returned to Portland in 2009 (where she would work as a hospice nurse), she ran into her old classmate at a bar. “Sparks flew,” she says with a laugh.

But dating a dedicated construction guy like Auxier meant checking out job sites. Even on a date.

“He’d take me out to breakfast and then drive to the site to make sure it looked clean,” Cindy says. One time they noticed that a concrete “blanket,” basically a tarp, had blown off, so they stopped to fix it so the concrete wouldn’t have to be repoured.

As for orange cones that have been knocked over …

“Cones down? That’s bad,” she says. “We don’t like cones down.”

They were married in August 2012, and even that event comes with a streetcar story. The couple held a pre-rehearsal-dinner get-together, with appetizers and drinks, on a Portland streetcar.

The Auxiers spent their honeymoon in Africa. One of his two brothers and his wife served in the Peace Corps in Zambia, so the newlyweds stayed with them in an earthen hut with no running water or electricity.

Romantic.

“Well, we didn’t stay in the mud hut the whole three weeks,” Auxier explains. “I don’t think that would have ever flown with the wife.”

Not surprisingly, he mentions they took a commuter train from Tanzania to Zambia.

Cindy had just learned she was pregnant when he told her they might be relocating here. She was excited because she had friends in Kansas City.

He described how the streetcar line would start at the River Market.

“It can go down to Westport and the Plaza!” she remembers telling Andy. “He was like, ‘Whoa, it’s only going down so far.’ I thought it would be awesome for the city.…

“I was never so passionate about streetcars until I met Andy, obviously.”

When they moved here last October, Cindy was seven months pregnant. Their baby girl Owen (Andy’s mom’s middle name) arrived four weeks early.

They’d gone to their first childbirth class on a Saturday. Cindy’s water broke in the wee hours the following Monday morning; Owen would be born that Thursday. She’s now 9 months old.

Streetcar shepherd

He may not be the face of the Kansas City streetcar line, but Auxier is a cheerleader for streetcars just the same. Albeit a cautious, let’s-examine-the-facts kind of cheerleader.

“I think it’s an innovative, sleek mode of transportation,” he says. “It helps create vibrant downtowns. I’ve seen it in other cities. You see apartments and businesses and restaurants open up right along the route.”

As it expands, “it’s just going to create new options.”

If it expands, that is.

Stacy and Witbeck joined forces with a St. Joseph, Mo., transit company, Herzog Contracting Corp., to form KC Streetcar Constructors. That joint venture landed the contract to build the initial leg of the city’s new streetcar line, the first streetcars on Kansas City streets since the old system stopped running in the summer of 1957.

At its peak just after World War II, the old system claimed 136 million riders a year on 32 streetcar lines.

The starter line is a $100 million project, including $62 million for streetcar route construction and $18 million for the four streetcars. Another $23 million is being spent on new water and sewer lines, which were badly needed anyway.

KC Streetcar Constructors has its field office in the Corrigan Building at 1828 Walnut St., just a block off the streetcar route (or “construction alignment,” as Auxier refers to it). The “Please wipe feet!” note taped to the front door includes an arrow down to a “boot brush” on the sidewalk.

As at a lot of businesses, the fifth floor is a cubicle village. Auxier has a corner office.

A 2014 Stacy and Witbeck calendar tacked to his bulletin board features, for the month of June, a lovely aerial view of track being laid on the Main Street bridge last fall. Other months spotlight some of the company’s other transit projects. (Salt Lake City, Dallas, Seattle and Portland are current streetcar clients.)

The May picture shows the Portland to Milwaukie, Ore., light-rail project, the job Auxier worked on before he came here.

On his desk is something that could be a paperweight but is actually a tiny slice of streetcar track. Kansas City will be only the third U.S. transit project to use this “112 tram rail,” or block rail. It’s just shy of 3 inches tall instead of the more typical 8 to 10 inches. Just a quarter-inch will stick up above the pavement.

One of the advantages of the Corrigan Building, which is slated to become luxury apartments, is that the streetcar team can use the parking lot east across Walnut to park its equipment. There’s also a big stack of steel plates for covering up street holes.

On the day of the Main Street tour, Auxier checked in on a milling project at the viaduct near Union Station, which goes over a bunch of railroad tracks as well as parking lots. Crews were grinding down 2 inches of the bridge deck to accommodate streetcar track.

The streetcar team handed out two big boxes of earplugs to people who worked nearby. “Trying to keep everybody safe and happy,” Larrabee says. “’Cause it is loud.”

The team works to be mindful of the public. At a weekly progress meeting of streetcar field engineers and superintendents in mid-July, the talk is mostly about pre-track-laying utility work. The room fills with 14 men and one woman.

Several of the guys are wearing their safety vests. Auxier is in his usual work uniform: button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled up and jeans.

The star of the show, on a big screen, is an Excel spreadsheet titled “3 week look ahead.” It includes “events, races, activities” such as the weekly City Market farmers market. That’s to remind everyone in the room that life in Kansas City must go on during construction.

Auxier is leading this meeting, but an outsider might have trouble figuring out who’s the boss. As jobs on the list are discussed, Auxier jumps in only periodically, usually to ask a question, like how work will affect traffic. Toward the end of the meeting, on a different matter, he tells an employee, “That’s something we’ve gotta be perfect on.”

The purpose of these meetings is to get everyone on the same page, he says afterward. They can let businesses know if the sidewalk out front has to be closed, for instance. And he doesn’t want “the electrical guy to close the two left lanes (of a street) and the water guy to close the two right lanes.”

Meghan Jansen, the woman in the meeting, is public information manager for KC Streetcar Constructors. “It’s always, ‘OK, how can we tweak, adjust, make things easier on the people who are living and working through this?’” she says later.

More than two dozen private utilities — think KCP&L, Time Warner Cable, AT&T, etc. — had fiber optic lines or conduit or manholes that had to be modified, repaired or moved to prepare for streetcar construction.

Jansen calls it “spaghetti under the street.”

Down there “it’s a very crowded place,” says Ralph Davis, city engineer in KC’s public works department. “But it’s what supports a modern downtown.”

The streetcar team is also managing the improvements to water and sewer lines, which in that part of the city are more than a century old.

“The last thing you want is a sewer leak underneath the tracks,” Auxier says. “Now’s the time to get all the infrastructure upgraded.”

His job is “to keep things moving,” says Jansen, whose company, Parson & Associates, is a subcontractor for the streetcar project.

“As long as you’re up front and honest and treat everyone with respect, that’s all they’re looking for,” Auxier says. “And they’ll return the favor.”

Davis says Auxier is fairly laid-back “for a construction person.” A consensus-builder. “Very even” in temperament.

Project superintendent Larrabee had used almost the same words: “He stays pretty even. When it’s time to get excited, he gets excited.”

Davis sees Auxier as part of “a new generation of very young, well-trained and balanced construction project managers.”

Streetcars started coming back in just the late 1990s, Davis says, “so it’s not like you can have decades of experience building streetcars.”

What now?

Andy and Cindy Auxier rent a house in Armour Hills, a neighborhood between Brookside and Waldo that may never have access to the streetcar line.

Brookside has that old trolley trail, but there’s no great desire to turn over the popular walking/jogging/biking path to streetcars. Plus running streetcar track that far south would be hugely expensive.

Brookside did not, therefore, make the list of possible streetcar extension routes. Independence Avenue, Linwood Boulevard and Main Street from Union Station to UMKC did.

But earlier this month, voters scratched not only the city’s Question A, which would have set up a streetcar taxing district, paving the way for system expansion, but also a state transportation sales tax. Some of that money would have gone to streetcars, too.

Only hours after the election, city leaders suggested they would wait for the streetcar line to get up and running before returning to voters. Kansas Citians, the theory goes, will love it so much they’ll then be willing to pay to expand it.

So for Auxier, the only guarantee he has is that he’ll be here through the end of next year, when construction on the route is slated to be finished.

And even if voters ultimately approve funding extensions, KC Streetcar Constructors might not get the contract.

For now, though, the job at hand is getting the track down and the overhead electrical lines up. After long months of utility relocation and such, track started being laid this month on the south end of the route, and work has started on foundations for the 400-plus electrical poles.

Is Auxier’s goal to build streetcar systems from coast to coast? Cindy, his wife, laughs.

“He loves streetcars,” she says. “I know he wants to continue to work on streetcars. He probably does want to have one in every city.”

As for Kansas City, the Auxiers may end up being short-timers.

“You never really know how long you’ll be here,” he says. “Sounds like maybe shorter than I was hoping for.”

To reach Tim Engle, call 816-234-4779 or send email to tengle@kcstar.com. On Twitter: @tim_engle

ALL ABOARD: WHAT TO EXPECT FROM KC’S STREETCAR LINE

Kansas City’s 2.2-mile starter line should be running by early 2016. Here’s what riders can look forward to, according to city engineer Ralph Davis:

At the beginning, at least, rides will be free.

There will be four streetcars. Design of those is close to done. The manufacturing process will start in Spain and be completed in Elmira, N.Y.

The streetcars will be enclosed, although the tops of windows should open to allow fresh air. Riders can sit or stand.

There will be a stop every couple of blocks. The route loops around the River Market and then goes up Main Street, ending at Union Station. For most of the route, there will be track on both sides of the street.

Streetcars will go the same speed as traffic, typically 15-25 mph.

It’s not clear yet what kind of sound the streetcar will make as it takes off. Maybe “like an old school bell ringing,” Davis says. It will, of course, have a horn for cars and people in its path.

Who will ride the streetcars? The city expects a mix of downtown residents and workers as well as out-of-towners here for business or pleasure.

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