WATERLOO — Many forget the poor condition of Waterloo’s streets before voters approved a 1991 local option sales tax for their repair.
But City Engineer Eric Thorson, who will spend his last day on the job Friday before retiring, said the difference the $10 million annual cash infusion made is among the highlights of his 44-year city career.
“That was huge for us, because we went from having very minimal funding to a pretty significant amount of funding to work on streets,” Thorson said. “Back when I started we were pecking away at it and things were still getting worse all the time.
“It’s not perfect out there — we’re in a really, really tough climate for roads — but we are getting things rebuilt and keeping things preserved,” he said. “It’s been a real focus for the whole department.”
Larry Moser, who has chaired the sales tax oversight committee since its adoption, said the program Thorson and his staff developed to guide the street repairs was key to winning repeated voter approval to keep the tax. The 10-year extension approved in 2013 had 75 percent voter support.
“Eric did such a good job of spending the money wisely on the streets, and keeping very good track of it, that it never had a problem passing,” Moser said. “He’s not controversial and he gets the job done.”
Thorson worked on city survey crews while attending West High School and later through an engineering co-op program before graduating from Iowa State University. He was hired by the city in June 1974 as a project engineer and was appointed as city engineer in 1984, replacing Ralph Anderson.
“I’ve been really fortunate with the city,” Thorson said. “I had the opportunity to do what I went to school for and what I was trained for and wanted to do my whole career.”
The tools of his trade have changed over the years from slide rules and hand drafting to calculators and computerized design, and his boss has changed eight times through mayoral elections.
“Each mayor was great to work for,” Thorson said. “My philosphy was: I wanted to help them do what they wanted to accomplish for the city.”
The local option tax program was among many major initiatives started or completed during Thorson’s tenure.
He worked on numerous sewer line extensions when the city was expanding early in his career and major street enhancements as part of the interstate substitution program, including Ansborough Avenue and San Marnan Drive. He oversaw the replacement of the 18th Street Cedar River bridge, and got the current University Avenue and U.S. Highway 63 reconstruction projects off the ground.
Thorson also was tasked with starting a sidewalk inspection program now in its 28th year; setting up a storm water program to comply with federal environmental requirements; and has worked to keep the city’s flood control levees in good repair.
“There’s always so much going on and a lot of great things happening,” Thorson said. “One of the things I really had to convince myself of in order to retire is that you really just can’t stick around for everything.
“I kept wanting to make sure that this got done or that got done,” he added. “But it’s just ongoing work that needs to be done with infrastructure. There’s not a point you can get to where you can say everything is done.”
Thorson said he’ll miss the city staff with whom he’s enjoyed working over the years but is looking forward to traveling, volunteering and completing a few home projects in retirement.
An open house in honor of Thorson’s retirement will be held from 1 to 4 p.m. Friday in the Mollenhoff Conference Room on the second floor of City Hall.