The Project Manager Behind Dallas’ Drainage Relief Tunnel Project

February 20, 2020

Engineers Week is dedicated to raising awareness of engineers’ positive contributions to our society and introducing the profession to young people.

Halff’s purpose statement declares that engineers “improve lives and communities by turning ideas into reality.”

Vice President and Public Works Team Leader Todd Woodson, PE, LEED AP BD+C, is helping improve lives by managing the creation of the Mill Creek/Peaks Branch/State-Thomas Drainage Relief Tunnel (Mill Creek Tunnel). The tunnel, which is the largest under construction in the United States, will provide needed stormwater drainage relief in East Dallas to help save lives and protect residents, schools, medical facilities, businesses and streets from flooding.

Once completed, the project will reduce flooding that impacts more than 2,200 properties—an enormous impact on the communities in that area.

Public Works Team Leader Todd Woodson stands near the tunnel boring machine, named “Big Tex,” which is being used to carve out a 5-mile drainage relief tunnel.

Todd has served as project manager for the Mill Creek Tunnel for the last eight years, and he has practiced civil engineering for 24 years (all with Halff) since graduating from Texas A&M. His portfolio is diverse, his work experience and client relationships impressive.

We talked with Todd about how he stays inspired, what it means to manage a project so impactful, and what he has learned along the way.

What drew you to civil engineering?

“I started in electrical, but found myself more drawn to the civil end of things—infrastructure and water resources.”

How do you stay inspired or challenged?

“I have been fortunate to have worked on a variety of projects at Halff. I’ve worked with clients such as DFW Airport, the Corps of Engineers and TxDOT on projects ranging from an airfield to a bridge. It’s the variety that keeps me challenged.

“More than anything—it’s not the projects—it’s the people you’re working with. I have been fortunate to work on many different projects with people I enjoyed working with.”

Project Manager Todd Woodson describes in this video how the Mill Creek Tunnel will be constructed over the next handful of years.

What does it mean to you personally to be a part of the Mill Creek Tunnel project—a project of that magnitude?

“I know I have been privileged to be part of this project, but it’s not a one‑man show either. It took Joseph Sagel leading the design effort, Ashley Purkey assembling the 500-sheet plan set and Bogumil Nosek supporting the construction phase. It took the 84,000 hours (40 man-years) Halff personnel spent getting the project to this point. Those hours included H&H modeling, surveying, architecture, MEP engineering, environmental and right of way support.

“I do have to remind myself of the project’s magnitude. I was a part of 20 to 30 tours of the starter tunnel over the past year. (The starter tunnel is the 200-foot-long, 40-foot-tall by 40‑foot-wide underground chamber the contractor will use to assemble the tunnel boring machine.) When you see the same things so often, it is easy to lose perspective of the project’s magnitude. However, you’re quickly reminded when you see the contractor lower a million‑pound piece of the TBM into the tunnel.”

How do you follow up the tunnel project? What would be the next ideal project?

“(Laughs.) There is a lot to be said for the small uncomplicated project with plenty of budget and plenty of time.

“You know, a dirt road (aggregate-base road for those of you interested in technical terms) in a remote area can be just as interesting of a project as the tunnel. The projects are in different places; you’re meeting different people. You’re learning the intricacies of a different client or customer. … Being able to work with people you want to work with is helpful in any of the projects. That’s really what you want to keep.”

We talk a lot about ownership at Halff. What does that mean to you?

“It means making sure our work is done well, that it reflects well on the company, that the people we’re working for are pleased with the product.

“I can’t go to someone else and say, ‘It’s your fault something is messed up.’ Taking ownership is saying, ‘We need to figure out a solution here. It doesn’t matter who did what or why it was done, we need to figure out a solution.’ Of course, the best way is to take ownership and do it right the first time.”

Former Halff President Martin Molloy (left) presents an employee recognition to Todd Woodson during Todd’s early years with the firm.

Name one thing you’ve learned at Halff.

“There are a lot of things. I had been here a day or two, and Joe Novoa (one of Halff’s first employees and former president and chairman of the board) came up to me and said, ‘When you were in college, it might be a hard class and you think a B will be OK in the class. If the class is a little easier, you’ll try for an A.’ He said, ‘At Halff, we expect all A’s.

“Don Brock (a mentor) would remind us that “quality is not an accident. It takes attention to detail.” If I recall correctly, Don said Dr. Halff had this quote, or something very similar, in his office.”