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Published: Monday, 1/5/2009

ODOT planner approaches 40 years of freeway duties

BY DAVID PATCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Mike Ligibel now manages project planning for eight counties in northwest Ohio. Mike Ligibel now manages project planning for eight counties in northwest Ohio.
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Forty years after helping make sure Toledo's freeway system was built as designed, Mike Ligibel is now in charge of plans to bring portions of that work up to date.

As an engineering intern with what was then the Ohio Department of Highways during the late 1960s, Mr. Ligibel found himself assigned to an array of tasks, from ensuring earthwork was correct to rechecking design calculations and finalizing plan documents.

Later this year, Mr. Ligibel, 63, will complete 40 years of service with the Ohio Department of Transportation, not including two years of military duty after he graduated from the University of Toledo in 1969.

As the planning and programs administrator at ODOT's district office in Bowling Green, Mr. Ligibel is the second most senior employee in the district, and one of its most visible to the public.

For now he has no plan to retire, even though he recently survived a stroke that may have made others anxious about their mortality.

"I just don't know what I would do with myself," he said, noting that he doesn't play golf or have any hobbies that he's passionate about. "I couldn't imagine finding another job I'd like better than what I do now."

What Mr. Ligibel does now is manage the transportation department's project planning for eight counties in Ohio's northwest corner, stretching from Williams through Fulton, Henry, Lucas, and Wood to Ottawa, Sandusky, and Seneca counties in the east.

"Mike is well-respected by his peers at ODOT and other municipalities," said David Dysard, ODOT's district deputy director in Bowling Green and formerly the transportation director at the Toledo Metropolitan Area Council of Governments.

"His success is evident in the millions of dollars he helped bring to northwest Ohio in infrastructure improvements," Mr. Dysard said. "He has made some of the largest projects in district and state history possible."

Among his current tasks is overseeing plans for modernizing large segments of I-75 and I-475, the construction of which he participated in 40 years ago.

That responsibility has made Mr. Ligibel the point man for ODOT at some contentious meetings where citizens have vocally protested elements of the plan, in particular the elimination of certain I-75 ramps near the I-475 junction.

Mr. Ligibel was there as a field inspector when that junction was built during the early 1970s, largely on fills atop abandoned dumps along the Ottawa River. In one of them, not too far from what today is the Toledo Area Regional Transit Authority's bus garage, workers unearthed mounds of old trolley tokens that Community Traction Co., TARTA's private-sector predecessor, had discarded.

"I think people grabbed a few of those as souvenirs," he said, regretfully adding that he didn't take a few for himself.

Though now decidedly suburban, the area around the western part of I-475 was "pretty much out in the sticks" when it was built. One of Mr. Ligibel's duties during its late-1960s construction was to set up a portable laboratory to field-test sand dug up from the right-of-way to determine if it was suitable for use as construction material elsewhere.

After graduating from UT with an Army ROTC commission as a second lieutenant, Mr. Ligibel did a two-year stint in the Army, starting as assistant facilities engineer for the Corps of Engineers at Blue Grass Army Depot in Kentucky for a year.

He next served a year as platoon leader and assistant facilities engineer with the 13th Engineer Battalion, Camp Casey, South Korea.

The latter post involved building roads and camps within 20 miles of the Demilitarized Zone in Korea, but Mr. Ligibel acknowledged it was a much less dangerous duty than in Vietnam, where many of his friends went and "some of them didn't come back alive."

Three months after his return from the military, ODOT assigned Mr. Ligibel and a colleague to the then-new duty of environmental reviews, as required by the National Environmental Policy Act of 1971. The new assignment would end Mr. Ligibel's days as a field engineer, though he considers that experience to have been valuable in his career as a planner.

In 1978, he completed master of business administration studies at UT, but got no job offers - "it was a bad economy then too," he noted - and decided to stay with ODOT.

"I stopped looking, and stuck with what I did. I was not going to get wealthy, but I did have job security, benefits, and a retirement plan," Mr. Ligibel said. "By that time, I had three kids too. I never thought again about going someplace else."

The business studies, he added, did come in handy for planning the financial side of projects, such as wrangling funds from different sources for projects like the I-280 trench reclamation in North Toledo now under way.

"That has more funding sources than any project I've ever worked on," Mr. Ligibel said.

The variety of skills needed to do his job, he remarked, is a main reason he keeps doing it: "There's always something new out here."

He said over the years, ODOT has streamlined its procedures for environmental reviews - doing full reports only for major projects - and has become more conscious of how its projects affect the general public.

Decades ago, Mr. Ligibel conceded, ODOT waited too late before inviting the public in to the project planning process.

"It was different back then. We didn't engage people early enough in the process where they could have meaningful input, and the result of that was a lot of litigation," he said. "But we've had a big change since then. We really bring options to the public."

Not that the public is always satisfied with the alternatives state officials offer.

Mr. Ligibel best remembers a meeting early this decade involving plans for a new U.S. 24 around Waterville - a project scheduled to start construction this year - when ODOT described the process it used to evaluate route alternatives.

There was a Bowling Green State University statistician in the audience "who came up to the microphone and tore the document into little pieces" and threw them at the feet of Rich Martinko, then ODOT's district deputy director, Mr. Ligibel recalled.

Most of the time, the planning administrator said, meeting comments have been less dramatic. "I've been to a lot of good public meetings where people sit down together and have good conversations, good dialogue," he said. "Sometimes we have to agree to disagree."

Contact David Patch at:

dpatch@theblade.com

or 419-724-6094.



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