Meet veteran MDOT project manager, Mohammed Alghurabi
Talking Michigan Transportation – 9/19/2019
Meet veteran MDOT project manager, Mohammed Alghurabi
On the latest Talking Michigan Transportation podcast, MDOT Director of Communications Jeff Cranson talks with Mohammed Alghurabi, a veteran project manager. Mohammed talks about his career path and his decades-long work on what is now the Gordie Howe International Bridge.
Mohammed also discusses:
- his work as project manager on the M-6 freeway in Ottawa and Kent counties;
- and how work as a project manager requires a great deal of communication and relationship building.
Narrator: It's time for Talking Michigan Transportation, a podcast devoted to the conversations with people at the forefront of the ongoing mobility revolution. In the state that put the world on wheels, here's your host, MDOT communications director Jeff Cranson.
Jeff Cranson: Hi, welcome to Talking Michigan Transportation, a podcast about all things mobility in the state of Michigan. I'm your host Jeff Cranson, Director of Communications at the Michigan Department of Transportation, and today I'm very pleased to have a special guest, a colleague and good friend of mine, Mohammed Alghurabi. Thanks for doing this, Mohammed.
Mohammed Alghurabi: It's my pleasure, Jeff.
Jeff Cranson: So, let's talk. I think you've just got a fascinating personal story, not to mention that you've worked on a lot of fascinating projects during your time at the department, but let's just start with what brought you to the United States from your native Iraq, how you ended up in Michigan, you know, that whole thing.
Mohammed Alghurabi: Well, thank you for asking that question, because it's really interesting to note that since I was a child I really had a dream to be a civil engineer, but unfortunately, because I couldn't do this in my home country at the time. I was given the privilege and opportunity to come to the United States at age 17 and started my life altogether, really, in the United States, and of course Detroit was the choice for city to be in, and to attend school at a great school, Wayne State University.
Jeff Cranson: So why Detroit?
Mohammed Alghurabi: Why Detroit? Basically, there's probably a backstory, but in short we had friends and neighbors that we knew really well, and they had already migrated to the United States…
Jeff Cranson: Folks from Baghdad?
Mohammed Alghurabi: …from Baghdad, migrated to Detroit, and they played a role in picking Wayne State, and picking the location at the time, but I think they made a great choice.
Jeff Cranson: Okay, so how did you get from Wayne State civil engineering program to being a project manager at MDOT?
Mohammed Alghurabi: Again, there's a really good story on this one, because I was very lucky to have the opportunity to do the co-op program with the department. So, MDOT came to Wayne State in my probably sophomore or probably junior year, and they recruited me to do co-op work, and I had the privilege to work for wonderful MDOT-ers that really taught me so much during that time. So, that really kind of inspired me about Michigan Department of Transportation, and I wanted to have a job with, ultimately with MDOT.
Jeff Cranson: Your father was educated in the States, right?
Mohammed Alghurabi: That's correct, my dad had the opportunity to come back in the 50s, late 50s, and get his master’s and PhD - he's a mathematician and statistician - at Washington State University.
Jeff Cranson: So that that gave you a bit of familiarity with the United States, and your dad wasn't going to push back when you said you want to go be educated the United States, but do you think your parents anticipated then that you would end up staying here for the rest of your life?
Mohammed Alghurabi: I don't think so. I think at the time they probably, they hoped and that I would go back once I finished my education, but things got difficult with the world as we know it, and it really changed the story for me, and it was a good story for me to stay and continue my life here in Michigan.
Jeff Cranson: So, what specifically transpired around that time that you came here to go to school?
Mohammed Alghurabi: Well, this is around the mid-80s to late 80s, and so when I graduated Wayne State in 1988 we were getting very close to the Iraq-Iran war, and at that time things were getting very heated up, and think that that probably was a reason for me to stay back and continue my journey here.
Jeff Cranson: And It was just a few years later that Saddam Hussein went into Kuwait.
Mohammed Alghurabi: Yeah, that's correct.
Jeff Cranson: Yeach, so from that time on did you kind of feel like ‘it's going to be very difficult to go home, I'm probably gonna…’
Mohammed Alghurabi: I think so, and we all know that sometimes you don't know until you take the next step so to speak, so, I wasn't really anticipating 100% that I would be staying, but then, like I said, I found the love of my life, my wife. We've been married thirty years now, so that really kind of really paved the way for me to stay and start our own family and life here in Detroit, Michigan.
Jeff Cranson: Yeah, so I guess, to talk a little bit about what that was like - coming here with a little familiarity with the United States because of your dad, but for the most part you came here on your own and carved out a life, and it's kind of a classic immigrant story right?
Mohammed Alghurabi: It was, in the sense of - I didn't really speak the language, I knew I was educated where I could read and write - so to speak – English, but I had to learn the language, I had to go to the English Institute and spend a year before even I was able to begin college, school, at Wayne State. So, I spent one year there, and then four years to get my degree.
It was tough, especially, I look back, I wish I knew then what I know now which is, I would have maybe at least started in a community college that would have helped me with the smaller classes. Hindsight is 20/20. I was in a class that was like 200 people and trying to study, like for example, economics, or history class, and that was really difficult.
Jeff Cranson: Well, so do you think - you know, most DOTs are kind of divided. They've got planning, and they've got engineering, and you're a hybrid because you're an engineer, but you work in the planning department at MDOT, and you're a project manager, and when you get to be a project manager it's not about engineering anymore, it's about managing personalities. It's about dealing with various crises every day, and how you solve problems, and do you think that your experience, because of the challenges that you've faced, have made you more compassionate, more empathetic, and helped you in the field when you're dealing with people who aren't happy with, for instance, when you were project manager on M-6, the last freeway that's been built in the state of Michigan, and you had to deal with competing factions, and neighbors who weren't happy about various things, and I see what you do with the Gordie Howe International Bridge, and the relationships that you've built up in Delray in southwest Detroit, and how is that shaped by your own experience do you think?
Mohammed Alghurabi: It's funny you asked that question, because I started with MDOT in the area that was called Route Location. So, Route Location, or Project Development, is an area where, kind of, you're looking at a clean slate - page - looking at projects that are large, and planning…
Jeff Cranson: Starting from scratch?
Mohammed Alghurabi: …Starting from scratch. So, the tie to planning – so, I spent probably half of my career in the highway engineering side of the department but planning worked hand-in-hand with that too. You couldn't do projects that are brand new without having planning as part of it, so I look back and I say I feel like I am very privileged to have the opportunity to serve in both areas, because you really need both. And you said it so accurately, that you have to have the patience that planning could give you, that it does give you – versus, sometimes as an engineer you are ready to execute because you've got the tools, you've got the education, you're ready to do that, but when you're working on a project, for example, like the Gordie Howe, when you're exploring a route in 25 square miles, you really want to be able to have the patience to work with the community - which is the most important part of the project - you want to be patient and do that thoroughly.
Jeff Cranson: So, you know, going back to your last big project before you got thrown onto the Detroit River International Crossing, which it was called for a while…
Mohammed Alghurabi: Right.
Jeff Cranson: …And then it was called…
Mohammed Alghurabi: NITC, New International Trade Crossing.
Jeff Cranson: NITC, New International Trade Crossing. Now it's the Gordie Howe International Bridge. You've been with this thing through every incarnation. You've seen it from back in the early 2000s…
Mohammed Alghurabi: It was 2004 when I, basically, was assigned that project.
Jeff Cranson: So, you've been dealing with the neighbors, and the people who would be most influenced, would have the most impact on their lives from this bridge, and built up those relationships to the extent that when the former director Kirk Steudle gave you a little bit of a shout out at the groundbreaking on the US side, hundreds of people under that tent stood up and applauded, because they knew you, because you had built those relationships over the years, and they trusted you, and they knew that when you came to them and said ‘this is what we're gonna do, and this is what we're gonna do for you,’ it would happen. Just talk about how important that is.
Mohammed Alghurabi: I am very humbled and touched by the fact that the community is what made the project, shaped the project, and really helped me to be the person I am today, because, again, I say that because the community taught me that the community of Delray is a community that has sustained so much over the years.
They told us from day one it wasn't going to be just, you know, basically they have to be relocated, that's not something we could explore without talking to them about what it means to them, and what would the life of the project do to their lives, and so, it taught me a lot in terms of perseverance, because they persevered quite a bit, and they went through the journey. Just like you said, it's been 15 years since I've been a project manager, and I know it was probably before 2004 when the conversation started on the new crossing in the area.
So, again, I believe that working with the community gave me tools that I will cherish for years to come. To learn that patience, and work hard, and communicate - which is the most important thing, communicate, communicate, communicate - to them and back, and give them – basically, answer their questions, be available for them. We've held, as you know Jeff, probably over 100 meetings in Delray, and I would say probably we could have done more, because it was needed. It was necessary, it wasn't that simple to put a brand-new international bridge in an area without having to do a lot of homework, and I believe we have done a lot of homework.
Jeff Cranson: And talk about some specifics of some of the personal relationships.
Mohammed Alghurabi: Well, some people - a lot of the people - that I worked with, they became like family to me, extended family to me, because I got to know them. We held almost once a month, sometimes twice a month meetings, so we got to see each other on a regular basis. We’d talk about their family, they’d talk about my family - as a matter of fact, one time my wife showed up to one of the, she wanted to surprise me on my birthday, and showed up, because she knew that I was at the public meeting, but I wasn't home, she said she figured ‘Well, I'll bring cupcakes to the meeting,’ and that was a surprise - shocked me beyond belief - and so my wife, even got to meet the wonderful people, like you said.
But one touched my heart in a special way, because she was very faithful. She came to every meeting, she was very concerned about her home, she wanted to make sure that we treat her right, and it was a journey, it was a really hard journey, tough journey, because for her it was generational. It was her parents and her folks lived in that –
Jeff Cranson: She lived right in the middle of the footprint of the bridge.
Mohammed Alghurabi: Exactly, exactly, so she knew that she would be part of the acquisition, but she didn't know what that would look like –
Jeff Cranson: Well, she was very happy with her offer, and you know, financially, but still it was her home, and it had been her home for a long time.
Mohammed Alghurabi: Exactly, so I think we needed - to me, it wasn't just another person that was being relocated, like it's just a name - it meant she's like family, so to me, I personalize it as someone that I cared about, and we knew, and she talked to me regularly, on a regular basis, concerned about the situation, so I wanted to make sure that she got treated right - and thank God for the way MDOT handled the situation, I think we treated her right, and she's happily relocated in her new home.
Jeff Cranson: So, now that the project is underway there's work going on on both sides, you know, complicated relationship with Canada financing the project, and a P3, which is not the way we usually do things in the United States - we've got a big one going on now on I-75 in Oakland County, we did one for freeway lighting, much smaller scale - but the kind of P3s that have been done in Canada and European countries, I mean they're familiar with, and that's what this is, the public-private partnership that'll be the consortium that actually manages the bridge for years. That's all new, but I mean, just getting this far is a tremendous sense of achievement and accomplishment for you. I mean, you talked about - before the groundbreaking, you know, the crossing agreement, and all the various milestones to get us this far with the Gordie Howe - you talked about it as if you were giving birth to your to your own child.
Mohammed Alghurabi: It really is, it really is, Jeff. I think most of the time, in the life of an engineer, you don't see all that all in one career. You know, a lot of times - like M-6, I came on M-6 more towards the design and the construction, not the beginning where they study, and I was told by people that were involved in the beginning of that project, it started in the late 60s. So, when we built it it was in the late 90s and early 2000…
Jeff Cranson: Yeah, for listeners who don't know, this is a freeway that enters Kent County south of Grand Rapids and was called the South Beltline for many years, because it was going to be a southern expressway to get around Grand Rapids from Ottawa County, and to connect with I-96 for people heading further east, and it was on the drawing board for years, and years, and years.
Mohammed Alghurabi: That’s correct, yeah.
Jeff Cranson: So yeah, you're right, there was a lot going on both politically, and from an engineering standpoint, and you came in to see the project over the finish line, but still, in a funding environment where we've been underfunding transportation in Michigan for 40 years, and then a top of that with the population decline, and then flattening out - there hasn't been a lot of reason to build new roads. We've been focused on maintaining what we have, so that's the last freeway, and that's been 12 to 15 years since that was completed, so it's pretty cool you got to be part of that too.
Mohammed Alghurabi: Yeah, you don't get to - it's a luxury to see it all in one lifetime, life-career-time, and in my case to see the Gordie Howe being built, and we all know that it will be done by the end of ’24, that's just tremendous.
Jeff Cranson: Yeah, so what do you look forward to most, I mean, what do you think that will be like, how that will change things forever in terms of the flow of commerce and our connection to Windsor, and our most important trading partner?
Mohammed Alghurabi: I would like to see both Detroit and Windsor reap from the benefits of the trades and the infrastructure, and the capital that is being spent in that area. That area deserves nothing but the best, and I believe with the amount of investment that is being made in that area, it's going to change it for years to come, and so I'm excited about the opportunities.
I’m excited about the potential jobs - because most people think it's just jobs that are tied to construction and tied to the building of the bridge, and the other components of the project, but I think it's beyond that, because it's logistics, and we all know, if you're familiar with logistics, you have a lot of supporting entities, or supporting pieces to that, and it will require and provide opportunities for other jobs. So, it's like a ripple wave, and you will see more and more prosperity because of this wonderful project.
Jeff Cranson: By that you mean the distribution of goods and services, and trucking, and other modes that will all want to be in close proximity to that because that crossing is so important.
Mohammed Alghurabi: Exactly, exactly.
Jeff Cranson: Yeah. So, what do you say to a youngster growing up somewhere else who might dream of someday becoming a civil engineer, and working on those kinds of projects, and maybe making their way from another country into the United States, or from the United States to another country?
Mohammed Alghurabi: I would say to them that - the first thing is, try to find a mentor. I really attribute a lot of my successes to some of the people that have helped me, taught me, held my hand to do better things. So, I attribute that to a lot of people who were willing to take that time and, I would say to them find someone that would help you in that journey, and please reach out to me or people at MDOT that – if we can be of help to you, and we can inspire you about transportation.
I think it's a phenomenal career. It doesn't matter which area within transportation, you will be the luckiest person on earth because you will touch people, you will help people make their dreams, because transportation is so important and vital for every area of everything we do in our lives. So, I believe civil engineering sometimes, unfortunately, gets a bad rap because people get confused. They don't realize what it could potentially give you, but I would say think of environment, think of economics, think of communication, think of financial. It could be many areas within the transportation realm. So, it doesn't end with just being an engineer. Of course, I would love to see you be a civil engineer, but I'm saying don't stop there. There are other parts to civil engineering, or I should say to transportation.
Jeff Cranson: But being a part of building something, a legacy, that's really what you feel pretty strongly about?
Mohammed Alghurabi: Absolutely. We're like doctors, but for another different part. Not medical doctors, but we’re basically providing the hub, or the livelihood, for people to carry on their life when they move on - whether work, school, worship, whatever that might be.
Jeff Cranson: Well thanks, Mohammed, for taking the time to do this. Again, I think your story's inspiring to others, and appreciate you sharing.
Mohammed Alghurabi: It's my pleasure, thank you Jeff.
Narrator: That's a wrap for this edition of Talking Michigan Transportation. Check out show notes and more on Soundcloud, or by subscribing on Apple podcast.