Two Harbors native makes his mark on public transitLuke Olson grew up in Two Harbors — a town lacking a light-rail or streetcar system — but now the 1997 Two Harbors High School graduate has made a name for himself designing and implementing sophisticated mass-transit systems.
By: LaReesa Sandretsky, Lake County News Chronicle
Luke Olson grew up in Two Harbors — a town lacking a light-rail or streetcar system — but now the 1997 Two Harbors High School graduate has made a name for himself designing and implementing sophisticated mass-transit systems.
Olson, 34, was recently named one of 40 up-and-coming young professionals in the public transit industry by Mass Transit Magazine, a Wisconsin-based publication with 21,000 readers in North America.
“It’s a way to highlight what the next generation is doing and that there are bright stars coming,” said Leah Harnack, editor for the magazine.
For the fifth year, she and four colleagues sifted through about 150 nominations to choose the top 40 professionals under the age of 40. Nominees are judged on innovation, achievement, industry involvement and job commitment.
“(Olson) had a lot of project design and management experience and he’s involved at the industry in a level rather than just in his own company,” Harnack said of why he was chosen.
After graduating from Two Harbors, Olson studied at the University of Minnesota Duluth for two years before transferring to the University of Colorado in Boulder, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering.
“I always enjoyed math and science,” he said. “(Civil engineering) just seemed to fit what I was good at.”
He landed an internship in Denver and then a permanent position in Portland, Ore., where he dove headfirst into designing mass-transit systems for an architectural firm.
“Portland is a big transit city that paved the way for many other cities around the country as a model for how to implement good public transportation,” he said.
His colleagues recognized Olson’s drive and talents as he rapidly took on more responsibilities. Eventually, he said, his advancement stalled in the well-established branch and he grew tired of the Portland rain. So, he transferred to Austin, Texas, where his company had a fledgling branch — and where there was plenty of sun.
“When you don’t have an opportunity that’s obvious, seek it out,” he said of the move. “You have two choices – you can stay with status quo and just be good at your job, but if you want to keep advancing, you have to find out how you’re going to achieve.”
In Austin, he took on a leadership role in the company and started to spread his wings as a manager. But soon, he got homesick, and when he received a job offer to work in Minneapolis for HDR, a consulting firm based in Omaha, Neb., he jumped at the opportunity. He’s now the central region streetcar director for the firm.
On Monday morning, Olson said he was kicked back with his feet up on his desk in his Minneapolis office — a rare treat. He’s typically travelling, racking up thousands of airline and hotel points, or answering a never-ending stream of phone calls and emails from clients and co-workers. He’s currently working on streetcar projects in St. Paul, Milwaukee, Kansas City and Dallas and supporting engineering efforts in Tacoma, Wash., and Salt Lake City.
“Every day is so different,” he said. “As consultants, we’re constantly marketing clients and looking for new projects or we’re working on projects.”
One thing that never changes is his weekend plan. Olson said he always makes spending time with his wife and two sons, ages 8 and 4, a priority, and he doesn’t step foot in the office between Friday and Monday.
“I refuse to (work on weekends) because that’s the time I’m guaranteed to have with my family,” he said.
Also non-negotiable are his trips to Two Harbors during deer-hunting season. Save two years — one when he was serving for the National Guard in Turkey and another when his son was born — he’s been back in Lake County every November since he moved away to don bright orange garb and sit in a deer stand. His parents, Lee and Laura, still live in Two Harbors.
It hasn’t been a direct path from Two Harbors to where he is now, and Olson credits lucky opportunities for much of his success. He’s also passionate about his work — and it shows.
“I like the impact our projects have on communities,” he said. “I like trying to figure out creative ideas to come up with a solution that can please as many people as possible.”