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A Young Engineer Tries to Put Bronx River Within Reach of the People   
Jessica McLaughlin at fence along Bronx River.

Standing out in hardhat and orange vest against gritty East Tremont Ave. in The Bronx, N.Y., engineer Jessica L. McLaughlin cuts an unusual, if petite, figure. A civil engineer with Chas. H. Sells Inc., her job is nothing less than to bring the people of The Bronx closer to the winding Bronx River. Behind her, shielded by a chain-link fence and layers of untended weeds, is a one-mile-long stretch of the river that runs adjacent to an Amtrak railway. The waterway and its banks (128kb, ) are currently fenced off from pedestrians, and McLaughlin hopes her current project, the Bronx River Greenway and bike path, will change all that.

This section of the Bronx is not typically known for its parks or greenery. In fact, when meeting a reporter, McLaughlin asked two male co-workers to join in for safety’s sake. “We’ve seen some pretty scary things going on around here—drug deals, and that kind of thing,” she says.

The police department’s nearby 43rd Precinct, which covers the East Tremont neighborhood, reports an improved but still worrisome amount of crime. Although the murder rate has fallen off sharply here and around New York City, there were 38 reported rapes in 2005.

Feeling unsafe on an urban jobsite is just one type of problem facing female engineers today. An even greater problem is how small a percentage of the field women remain, say women engineers and engineering associations. The number of female civil engineers in the U.S. has risen, from 8.9% in 2003 to 13.25% in 2005, according to the U.S. Dept. of Labor. Although that’s a significant gain, women are still a small minority.

A 24-year-old native of Albany, N.Y., McLaughlin’s interest in engineering arose from her proficiency in science—and luck. “In 7th grade, a boy backed out of our science Olympiad team, and my teacher asked me to be a stand-in,” she recalls. “I hadn’t really thought about science or math much before that. I had always planned on becoming a teacher! But I did participate again the following year, and took first place in regionals.”

As an engineering major at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, from which she graduated in May, 2004, McLaughlin was one of only eight women in a class of 60. To bridge that gap, McLaughlin helped start a program in which 30 female high school-aged students in the area who had good math and science grades were brought to campus and shown the potential careers available to women in engineering. If the number of women engineers is to grow “girls need to be encouraged to develop an interest in math and science earlier on,” McLaughlin says.

Often McLaughlin feels she needs to respond to clients or associates who are surprised that she is a young woman. “I do think there are times that clients are a bit…taken aback by my gender, and probably my age as well,” she says. “It just makes me want to go the extra mile, to put them at ease. I’ll be the first one to tell them when I don’t have the answer to their question, but I always investigate it and get back to them quickly. It’s the best way to learn, and also to show the client that I’m capable.”

The transportation department at Chas. H. Sells, which is based in Briarcliff Manor, N.Y., is unusual because there are six women in a staff of 13—an unusually high percentage. “It’s part of what made me join this company—I saw a fairly young woman who is a project manager, and it made it easier to envision myself, and my future, here,” McLaughlin says. “It gives a view of the philosophy of the company, that they’re progressive in who they hire, as well as in the technology they use. It was refreshing to see, because there were so many companies recruiting that were still 60-year-old men, still drawing by hand.”

Sells’ philosophy includes snapping up recent grads as quickly as possible, and keeping them on board as long as possible. “As hard as it is to recruit new talent, it’s even more difficult to replace someone good,” says Bernard H. Kalus, the company’s manager of transportation services. “We look at it like the NFL draft. We just want the best talent.

It wasn’t by design. I think it’s just a sign of the changing times, and part of our philosophy is to go in the same direction as the future. We do have a good amount of young people in our office, and it really breathes life into the company.”

McLaughlin appreciates the difference between the Greenway project and more run-of-the-mill assignments. Worries about crime, adds McLaughlin, are precisely what make the Bronx River Greenway project such an exciting and welcome change in the neighborhood.

“I’ve gotten to have a fairly large hand in this one…I’m used to looking at roads, and figuring out what can be done to fix a traffic jam, or how much repair a bumpy road will need. This was really different.”

The project involves a strip of land running from Westchester Avenue to East Tremont Avenue that includes an automobile impound lot and a garage. In conjunction with the New York State Dept. of Transportation, Chas. H. Sells produced a plan to turn the desolate mile into a large recreational area whose bike path would be a link in a planned East Coast bike path linking Maine and Florida. In East Tremont, few people own cars and neighborhood support was near universal. “The people in this part of the Bronx really do feel forgotten,” McLaughlin says. “It’s part of what made this project so exciting to work on.”

At a drafting table with project plans.

Design work will take until next year to finish. McLaughlin helped design the twenty-six retaining walls, which for the most part will be made of precast concrete blocks, and four bridges, to be made of prefabricated steel trusses. The retaining walls will allow the bike path to meet certain elevations, some high off the existing ground, as well as dip down to meet existing grade, and come back up again to cross over the Bronx River. Three of the four bridges will run over the Bronx River, and one will run over the nearby Amtrak and CSX tracks. Since the Amtrak and CSX tracks require a minimum amount of clearance between the tracks and the bottom of the bridge, the path will reach its highest elevation to clear the tracks, then slope downwards again, almost to water level to gain access to the Bronx River and a proposed dock. The dock will be located in the southeast area of a park, which will also house a baseball diamond.
The proximity of the Amtrak tracks, along with the cramped city conditions, made the one-mile project complicated.

  “That’s because there were so many factors involved,” says McLaughlin. “We try to spot as many potential problems early on. Aside from the railroad tracks, and the number of bridges and walls that are necessary, there are also several homes in the area, and the parks and path will basically be in their backyard.”

For the people living in the area, property valued will likely go up, but so will potential access to their homes. “During the Public Hearing meetings we attended, people were worried about that. We (in coordination with the Dept of Transportation) had to look at the crime statistics in the neighborhood, speak with the police and residence, and figure out what would make them feel safer,” McLaughlin recalls. “Right now, there’s an impound lot where the path will be, and it’s very safe. We had to plan ahead to provide extra safety for the homes, and we’ve come up with some good options, such as extra police patrol, and security cameras. We had to figure in the high homeless population in the area, and make sure the park didn’t become a makeshift shelter.

“In the end, it won’t matter how pretty the parks and bike paths are, if they’re not safe, no one is going to care.”

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