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Stephenson caps career of tremendous changes in field

POULSBO — During nine years in Little Norway, John Stephenson’s name has been linked to projects like Viking Avenue, Front Street and Lindvig Way.

But after more than 40 years as a civil engineer, he can also claim intimate knowledge of a few others.

Like Interstate 5.

And Interstate 90.

Current Interim Public Works Director and former Poulsbo City Engineer, Stephenson will officially retire today. Though he’s retired before, he said he has a feeling this is the real deal.

“It’ll be a huge change for me because in 41 years, I’ve never had more than two weeks summer vacation,” he said with a chuckle. “A number of people have asked me if I’d like to work part time or volunteer and I’ve said, ‘Maybe, but I need to see what this is like now.’”

Born and raised in Pullman, Stephenson is a graduate of Washington State University with a civil engineering degree.

But it wouldn’t take a degree to figure out where the department head hails from — he’s known in the Poulsbo City Council Chambers for his crimson and gray striped ties, the cougar poster that seems to appear mysteriously behind the department head table and his good-natured chiding of alumni of other alma maters during football season.

Stephenson said he chose civil engineering partly because he’d always been interested in such fields (as the son of a physicist) and also through a lucky break.

“When I was a senior in high school, I heard there was an opening at the civil engineering office in Pullman for someone who was majoring in civil engineering and I said, ‘That’s me,’” he recalled. “I worked there five summers.”

Graduating college in the early 1960s, Stephenson easily hooked a job with the Washington Department of Transportation, which was eagerly snatching up engineers to fuel its blossoming interstate program. The first project was the design and construction of I-5 into and through Seattle.

“Imagine Seattle without I-5. Alaskan Way was all there was,” Stephenson explained.

Another thing missing at that time was many of the restrictions on the processes. The first of the interstate projects took place before the passage of the National and State Environmental Protection Acts (NEPA and SEPA), as well as many of the current permitting requirements.

“It was truly an engineer’s paradise where you designed a bridge or a highway and built it and opened it and then moved along to the next section,” Stephenson remembered.

In 1969, Stephenson was promoted to project engineer to design and build I-90 from Bellevue to downtown Seattle.

Not only did his title change but so did the nature of his field. Within just a few years, NEPA and SEPA were passed, ushering in a new era of projects that had to submit for various permits and to public scrutiny.

Stephenson became the first public official to try out the new process as he authored the very first NEPA documents for a project in Washington. The first draft was 22 pages. Fourteen years and several appeals later, the final version, comprising three volumes and weighing 14 pounds, was approved and I-90 as we see it today was finally built.

“I still think the draft I produced first was more what the founders of NEPA intended, something you can read through quickly and understand the bottom line,” Stephenson commented. “It was interesting because we were learning the whole process as we went along.”

Stephenson spent 30 years total with the DOT, including memorable moments like getting to act as the agency’s spokesperson during the sinking of the Lacey V. Murrow floating bridge on Lake Washington in 1990. In later years, though, he said the job was less exciting.

“I got into administration and it wasn’t as fun anymore. The fun was engineering,” he said.

After retiring from WSDOT, Stephenson landed in the job that would bring him to the City of Poulsbo. He was living in Poulsbo and working for contracting firm Parametrix, with which the city often hires for projects. It was through this interaction that former Mayor Mitch Mitchusson asked Stephenson to join his team.

“(He) called me and he said, ‘I’ve just had my third city engineer in six months resign. I need someone with a little gray hair and who won’t just come in here and use this position as a stepping stone. The most important thing I need right now is continuity,’” Stephenson explained. “He said, ‘For years we’ve been talking about things we need to do and now I need someone to do them.’ So I said, ‘OK, if I spend too much money or make you nervous, let me know.’ And he never did.”

During his tenure with Poulsbo, Stephenson said he’s counted between two to three major projects each year he’s helped complete. Most memorable on the list include last summer’s Lindvig Bridge and the Viking Avenue reconstruction.

“The neatest one was the Viking Avenue reconstruction because that involved the most traffic and all the businesses along there,” he commented. “It’s so much more challenging when you have to fit it into an existing area. If you’re in virgin country, it’s easy, you just get a bulldozer and go. So that was the most challenging and the most gratifying.”

One thing he said he won’t miss about the job is the occasional public backlash for growth. Because of his unique position, Stephenson said he and the Planning Director were often blamed for things that they had no control over. He said he hoped that in years to come, he’d be remembered for his positive impacts rather than negative feelings.

“I don’t want to be blamed for growth, I’d rather be remembered for helping the city respond to the growth that was already coming here,” Stephenson commented.

After retiring, Stephenson and his wife Barbara, who is the sitting Kitsap County Treasurer, intend to remain in the Poulsbo area. He said he has an extensive list of projects at home and for his three grown daughters to complete, as well as time with his boat and four grandchildren to put in. But he said that he feels he’ll likely come back to the city, this time as a volunteer. He gave the example of retired engineer Bob Monks who helped the city cut down on costs on the Poulsbo Library elevator by acting as the volunteer project manager.

“I looked to him like a mentor and value someone with that much experience. If asked, I certainly will do something like that,” Stephenson said.

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