On Wednesday, September 20, 2023, the Institute of Transportation Engineers at USC (USC ITE) and the METRANS Transportation Research Consortium co-hosted Mr. Kome Ajise, Executive Director of the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG), for our first distinguished speaker event of the year. Professor Marlon Boarnet, METRANS Director, introduced Mr. Ajise. Professor Boarnet emphasized SCAG’s outsized impact on Southern California: it counts 191 municipalities, 6 counties, and dozens of local agencies among its members. In addition, it is overseeing over $639 billion of projects in its long-range regional transportation plan, Connect SoCal. SCAG’s work helps support Southern California’s status as the “most economically vibrant region in the country”, in Mr. Ajise’s words, with 47.6% of California’s population and a $1.6 trillion regional GDP – making the region the world’s 16th largest economy.
Mr. Ajise assumed SCAG’s Executive Director role in 2019, bringing over 30 years of regional planning and transportation experience to the organization. He previously studied Geography and Regional Planning at the University of Benin, Nigeria, and earned his Master of City and Regional Planning degree from Fresno State University. During the event, Mr. Ajise spoke extensively about his previous experience at Caltrans, where he was Chief Deputy Director until 2017. He also managed the agency’s public-private partnership (P3) program, and was director of Caltrans District 10 in Stockton, CA, which he called the “best job in the world”.
Students especially enjoyed Mr. Ajise’s discussion about his experience leading the Caltrans P3 program. He noted that the program was established in 2009, when the State Assembly passed SB4. This law granted certain California state agencies, including Caltrans, the power to pursue public-private partnerships. Mr. Ajise cited a particularly memorable project, the Presidio Parkway program in San Francisco, CA, to exemplify the benefits of exploring P3 options. At the time, the state needed to replace an unsafe road, but it lacked the funds to do so. The P3 legislation allowed Caltrans to collaborate with a private partner who would design, build, finance, operate, and maintain (DBFOM) the project, while the agency pays them over 30 years in a lease-to-own agreement. In the end, Mr. Ajise said the P3 arrangement would likely save the state $300 million over the project’s lifespan compared to the traditional design-bid-build method with Caltrans operating and maintaining the project.
Mr. Ajise concluded the event with valuable advice for our diverse group of students, including students of all years and disciplines, from engineering to urban planning. He encouraged students to “always make [themselves] available to opportunities”, explaining that he gained valuable knowledge about public-private partnerships by choosing to lead Caltrans’s P3 program at its inception. Additionally, Mr. Ajise summed up what SCAG is to him, saying, “[SCAG’s] job is to think about the future – we strive to create a vision for the future”. He highlighted how forces like the COVID-19 pandemic indelibly altered the world and emphasized the importance of adapting to change. Ultimately, the students learning from Mr. Ajise today will tomorrow be part of shaping and executing a vision for a better world.
About the author: Alex Wang is a second-year undergraduate student at the University of Southern California majoring in Intelligence and Cyber Operations and Industrial and Systems Engineering. He is interested in urban mass transit, along with the intersection of mobility, technology, and public policy. In his free time, he enjoys trying new foods, travelling, and collecting public transit fare cards.
This press release was featured by METRANS, a transportation research partnership between the University of Southern California, California State University Long Beach, the US Department of Transportation, and other industry partners.