2023 40 Under 40: Tommy Opland

Aug. 22, 2023
Tommy Opland, Area Manager, Modern Railway Systems

One word to describe yourself: Steadfast

Alma Mater: Boise State University

Fast fact about yourself: In seven years, I went from being an intern to a project manager thanks to a company full of great mentors.

What’s your best experience on transit and what made it memorable? 

Working on a team that retrofitted a 100-year-old bascule bridge in Portland, Ore., with rail and a movable-overhead contact system to allow the Portland Streetcar to connect to the eastside of the river.

Tommy Opland's journey in transit construction is marked by his technical skills, dedication and leadership abilities. A veteran of the U.S. Army post-9/11, Opland earned promotions during his deployments in South Korea and Iraq. After transitioning to civilian life, he embarked on a path of educational and professional growth in the transit industry.

Opland pursued higher education at Boise Station University while remaining a member of the Idaho Army National Guard. Juggling his commitment to his education and military duty, he graduated with a degree in construction management and achieved the rank of staff sergeant by the age of 26.

Opland joined Stacy and Witbeck in 2010, where his inaugural project involved the $109-million Portland Streetcar Loop. His contributions were pivotal in overseeing the installation of a complex overhead contact system on a historic bascule bridge, which necessitated the creation of custom components.

He served as systems manager on Sound Transit’s University Link Extension, where he spearheaded new system installations and managed a control system retrofit, ensuring timely completion and adherence to budget goals. His leadership played a crucial role in the successful early opening of the project.

Opland was promoted to project manager on Sound Transit's Northgate project, which involved innovative track solutions beneath the University of Washington. His efforts led to the project's recognition with a Ruby Level Partnering Award.

Transitioning to Modern Railway Systems (MRS) in 2018, Opland assumed the role of managing various communications projects in San Francisco, where he maintained positive relationships with stakeholders and successfully guided projects to resolution. As area manager at MRS, Opland now oversees a portfolio of Pacific Northwest transit systems projects valued at more than $120 million.

Beyond his project leadership, Opland played a role in the development of MRS' Operations Training Initiative, which underscores his dedication to enhancing team capabilities in areas such as estimating, safety, quality and customer relations. He is also a key figure in internal communication efforts, ensuring that all employee-owners understand the benefits of the ownership program.

Opland’s colleagues classify his leadership style as confident, calm and logical. They credit him for striking a balance between active involvement in details and providing guidance as a senior leader.

Is there a specific experience that led you to where you are today?

I have been fortunate to have many great mentors, leaders and coworkers throughout my transit career that I must credit for where I am today. More specifically, our company has a strong empowerment culture that I noticed when I first started as a new field engineer. Being given the right tools, coaching and space to grow my skills and perform my job everyday was the recipe that allowed me to accelerate my career quickly within our company. The first three rail transit projects of my career contained nearly every scope element that you would find on a rail transit system. I was fortunate to have been able to take part in managing nearly every one of those construction scopes such as rail, traction power electrification, train control, communication systems, operation control centers and maintenance facilities. Understanding how all these scopes work together as a complete system, the operational needs of our clients and the mentorship I received in the early years of my career were instrumental to my success.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

The rail transit industry is full of kind and brilliant people who are passionate about what they build. Being able work and collaborate with these folks makes every day enjoyable. For me personally, the passion and joy for what we do in mass transit comes from building something that leaves a lasting positive impact on the communities we work in.

What’s the most challenging part of your job?

Being an area manager who oversees several project teams, I’m often the person who helps solve issues that are not easily resolved through day-to-day project interactions. Having to mostly focus on only issues in my typical day can be challenging at times. However, I do find solace in that there are far more good days on a project than there are bad. So, by doing what I do allows my team to focus on the good and celebrate their successes.

Accomplishment you’re most proud of and why?

Being a part of a team that has helped expand Sound Transit’s light-rail system in the Puget Sound area over the past decade on six different projects. The extensions that have been built over the past 10 years are reaching areas of the community that benefit greatly from mass transit.

Best advice/tip/best practice to share from your area of expertise?

I would describe my area of expertise as project management. In project management it’s hard not to lead with your mouth as you are the one who is supposed to have the plan. However, I challenge myself every day and I would challenge others to lead with your ears and listen to the experts, clients and stakeholders around you. Collaboration and iteration will guide you to optimal outcomes.

About the Author

Mischa Wanek-Libman | Group Editorial Director

Mischa Wanek-Libman serves as editor in chief of Mass Transit magazine and group editorial director of the Infrastructure and Aviation Group at Endeavor Business Media. She is responsible for developing and maintaining the editorial direction of the group and is based in the western suburbs of Chicago.

Wanek-Libman has spent more than 20 years covering transportation issues including construction projects and engineering challenges for various commuter railroads and transit agencies. She has been recognized for editorial excellence through her individual work, as well as for collaborative content. 

She is an active member of the American Public Transportation Association's Marketing and Communications Committee and serves as a Board Observer on the National Railroad Construction and Maintenance Association (NRC) Board of Directors.  

She is a graduate of Drake University, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism and Mass Communication with a major in magazine journalism and a minor in business management.