MOORESVILLE – Dangling by a rope off the side of world’s 10th largest suspension span bridge – the 13,200-foot-long Verranzano Narrows connecting Brooklyn to Staten Island – is just another day on the job for WSP USA Bridge Inspection Engineer Tommy Graham.
Graham works for Dan Brewer, a vice president of WSP USA's Transportation & Infrastructure division, which is headquartered in Briarcliff Manor, N.Y., but has a Mooresville office off Talbert Road.
One of the world’s leading engineering and design consulting businesses, WSP imagines residential subdivisions, commercial strip malls and roadways into reality. It also inspects bridges and partakes in topographic mapping for large utility companies like Duke Energy, so they can accurately determine where to close ash landfills or expand operating space.
With 14,500 employees based in 35 countries, WSP’s reach is impressive. Brewer’s office houses 15 staff members, even though his original local firm employed more than 30 people before the economic downturn.
A 1982 graduate of Mooresville High School, Brewer received his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from NC State University and a master’s degree in geotechnical engineering from UNC.
He began a local engineering firm in 1998 and was the first occupant of Talbert Pointe Business Park near the intersection of N.C. 150. and Interstate-77. He hopes his new work space – which the company moved into in July – will grow to hold 25 workers over the next several years.
A New York transportation firm established in 1925 by professional engineer and land surveyor Charles Sells bought his firm in 2003. That firm was in turn acquired by London-based WSP Group in 2007, which merged with Genivar, a Montreal-based engineering firm, in 2012.
Before 2008, Brewer said his office worked primarily on the design and permitting process for local residential subdivisions, apartment complexes and retail development.
“Then the bottom fell out with the economic slow down. We went down to a staff of four. Instead of me doing the engineering, I was doing all the accounting because we had to lay off our accountant,” he said.
Brewer manages the office’s civil engineering group, which conducts the design of neighborhoods and their streetscapes, including the correct placement of water and sewer systems. Two local projects include the Abberly Green apartments off N.C. 21 and Curtis Pond subdivision off Rocky River Road.
“I like this job because there’s something different to do everyday,” Brewer said. “And I like seeing an end to a project I was involved in from the start, just seeing it after it’s constructed. It’s just a satisfying feeling, especially if it’s done right.”
WSP also spent about four months planning the layout for Mooresville Crossing Shopping Center, which houses Best Buy and Bed Bath & Beyond on N.C. 150.
“That's a project that I really think turned out right,” he said. “It’s easy to get in and out of. It’s very functional.”
Other civil engineering work includes creating functional plans for single-lot convenience stores, or larger road design for the Cornelius-Mazeppa connector project, which will bridge the two roads.
Developing a curvy route that only crossed one of two streams in that section of town was something Brewer said required a little extra effort and the approval of the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
“We operate as a small, local engineering firm, just as we always have, so nothing’s changed much,” Brewer said.
Nevertheless, diversification prompted by the 2008 slowdown brought Brewer’s team into the land surveying, roadway design and bridge inspection markets in full force.
“We had a really patient management staff in New York City that knew we were struggling and needed to diversify to stay alive during the downturn,” Brewer said. “We were able to hire a transportation services staff that was very diversified, and now we do traffic studies all over the area.”
Engineers from the Mooresville office also inspect huge structures like the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge in New York City or the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, which spans the distance between Philadelphia, Pa. and Camden, N.J.
Working anywhere from two weeks to two months on a bridge, the engineers check its support structures and connections once every year or two, reporting deficiencies to the appropriate government agencies.
Jennifer Starnes, a senior project engineer with WSP, has worked on projects like creating turn lanes from Talbert Road onto N.C. 150 or widening Mazeppa Road near NGK Ceramics’ office.
“The DOT will tell us how long a lane needs to be, or to add a right turn lane or something. I make sure the design is precise based on speed or how fast a car can move over lanes,” she said. “It seems pretty cut and dry, but it’s not.”
There are often environmental concerns that come into play when streams and wetlands are involved, she added.
“It’s like a big puzzle that you have to kind of put together. I like to solve problems, especially with roads when you have to make things work with traffic while it’s being built,” she said. “I like the creative process of it.”