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Manilla to take reins on Travis County Transportation/Resources job

Monday, January 10, 2011 by Michael Kanin

The Executive Manager of Travis County’s Transportation and Natural Resources might just have the most important job you’ve never heard of. Whoever fills that seat is responsible for the county’s parks, public works, roads, subdivision approval, a host of permits, and the management of Travis’ end of the Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan.


It’s a hefty job. And, since the position was created in 1995, only one man, Joe Gieselman, has held it. In August, he announced his retirement. His replacement is his former top deputy, Travis County Public Works Director Steve Manilla.


When Manilla takes the reigns at the end of this month, he’ll be walking into that massive portfolio at a time when county revenues are down and growth—thus demand for the limited amount of county services—is up. His efforts in 2011 will continue to define Travis County.


Manilla inherits a department in the middle of a handful of large-scale plans. These include the CAMPO 2035 effort, the input that the county will have into the City of Austin’s Imagine Austin plan, and the county’s own comprehensive plan, as well as its future downtown campus design. Still, Manilla sees a 2011 county bond initiative as his biggest target.


“The big thing for me is getting a 2011 bond referendum put together,” he said. “We’re going to be looking to put something before the voters in November.”


Manilla said that the bond could include money for roads, bridges, drainage improvements, and county parks. He also suggested that the Court could elect to begin “chipping away” at the still unsettled price tag for its downtown campus.


Though the final list has not yet been approved, early indications are that the bond will break down into two broad categories: Roughly $200 million for roads and parks and about $300 million for county facilities, including the downtown campus (see In Fact Daily, Jan. 5).


For the record, all of those plans—including another, one for the recently passed Colorado River Corridor—are on Manilla’s radar. The upcoming session of the Legislature is also on his mind.


“What unfortunately happens is, if a state government can’t afford something, they tend to push things down to us,” he said. “Unfunded mandates.”


Whatever’s in store, he’s well equipped for the challenge. Manilla got his degree in Civil Engineering from the University of West Virginia. Right after school, he found himself working for a consulting firm in Iran. He says he wasn’t there very long before “they said, ‘okay, you better get out.’ ”


Back in the States, he would log time as a bridge inspector working on spans in Richmond, Va., and on the Houston Ship Channel Bridge. “At that time it was the longest span of its type,” he says.


After a stint working on the Dallas North Tollway, and another few years abroad, he headed for the North Carolina Department of Transportation where he began climbing the supervisory ladder. It was there that he got his first taste of Austin and Travis County.


“I was assigned the task of helping to convert all of our design processes so that they used metric units,” he said. “I came to Austin because, at the time, TxDOT was one of the lead agencies in looking at how to do that, what the implications are, (and) what changes you had to make.


“I came here and fell in love with the place,” he continues. “I always had it in the back of my mind.”


He moved to Austin in 1994 and he stayed until 2000. In 2005, Gieselman brought him back for good. Manilla was working for the Ohio Department of Transportation. “(Gieselman) called me in the middle of January, I think it was,” he said. “He knew what he was doing.”


“Some of the experiences I have had throughout my career have helped me to understand how things happen,” he says. “I have been in locations (that are) very prosperous, some not so much. I’ve seen what works and what doesn’t in terms of transportation projects. What I bring to the table here is a pretty wide range of experience as far as the types of projects you do as well as experience in management—this whole issue of cost control and balancing your staff with what your needs are.”

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