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Fielding School of Public Health Alumnus Gives Back, to University and Environmental Health Discipline

Cris Liban, (D.Env ’03), chief sustainability officer at the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, partners with UCLA on environmental fellow program and wins 2020 Award of Excellence

Monday, March 22, 2021

When Cris Liban was starting his doctoral program, after earning degrees in geology and civil engineering and working full time in the engineering industry, UCLA’s environmental sciences emphasis struck him as something more appealing than the  civil engineering track where he had already been accepted.

“A few weeks before I needed to register for classes, I found the environmental science and engineering program, and I appealed (if) I could go environmental way instead,” Liban said. “I even said if I need to re-apply, I will, but they were able to work something out and I was able to enroll as such.”

The program, which gained Liban a doctorate (D.Env.) in Environmental Science and Engineering, falls under the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health’s Department of Environmental Health Sciences. Liban, who has risen from environmental specialist to chief sustainability officer at the massive Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, uses the Fielding School’s interdisciplinary approach every day at the $6 billion-a-year agency.

“Because of the unique path I took at Fielding, I was able to interact with industrial hygiene students, toxicologists, medical doctors, and as an engineer and a scientist I’m able to look for solutions that are unique,” Liban said.

As a manager with a team of 19 full-time staff and oversight of 100-150-strong consultant team, with 100 or more simultaneous projects, that sort of framework is a necessity, Liban said.

“Putting my pure `engineer hat’ on, I look at a problem and I try to solve it, and if it costs too much that’s other peoples problem; if isn’t politically possible that’s someone else’s problem,” he says, jokingly. “And the scientist says `that’s not the solution I was looking for, as a scientist I’ll just ask the question,’ and ask questions all day, and not care about the solutions.”

As Metro’s chief sustainability officer since 2019, his team oversees a project list that totals out to some $250 million in sustainability capital backlog, has realized $100 million in generated revenues since 2017, and has not cost Metro a cent since 2018. Specific projects have included:

  • Energy management projects, that generate more than $4.5 million in cost savings annually;
  • a 5-year program to retrofit all of Metro’s facilities using LEED- Existing Buildings Operations and Maintenance (LEED®-EBOM) guidelines, with cost savings of $400,000 per year per site;
  • Delivered on $8.5 million for energy-saving and energy efficiency technology projects; and
  • A water conservation program that has reduced potable water use more than 50% since 2013.

Those initiatives, and his work co-developing Metro’s ~$1.3 billion Green and Sustainable Infrastructure bond program and the agency’s $100 million Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS) credit initiative, have been recognized by leaders at the local, state, and federal levels, including service as a member of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s National Advisory Council for Environmental Policy and Technology during the Obama and Trump Administrations.

In addition, Liban, a registered professional engineer (P.E.) in California, has served as chair of the American Society of Civil Engineers National Committee on Sustainability and as a member of the California state Climate Safe Infrastructure Working Group. His latest recognition is the 2020 Award of Excellence, given by the professional journal Engineering News Record for “… developing usable, sustainable practices from the ground up at LA Metro, and pushing them forward to build not only a more sustainable world but also one that’s economic and beneficial to all levels of society.”

Dr. Irwin “Mel” Suffet, an environmental chemist, Fielding School professor of environmental health sciences, and Liban’s mentor at UCLA, said the engineer was thinking across disciplines even as a student.

“Cris was perfect for it because he had a broad scope of ideas,” Suffet said. “He was interested in not only the science, but as an engineer how to use the science to get things done.”

That willingness to reach out, and give back, is still in play: Liban is working with the UCLA Sustainable LA Grand Challenge to create a slot for an equity, diversity, and inclusion fellow.

“We’re working to develop a project that is mutually beneficial to LA Metro and the Sustainable LA Grand Challenge,” said Cassie Rauser, executive director of the Sustainable Challenge. “Cris is very interested in connecting with UCLA and giving back.”

The fellow program would focus on equity issues, and on getting more environmental students into the transportation industry, Liban said.

“It’s very relevant in terms of increasing the pipeline of engineers into the business, because it’s not simply mechanical engineering or civil engineering; we also deal with public health issues, food deserts, equity issues, housing, public health and sustainable infrastructure,” Liban said. “It’s not necessarily for students to get employed here at Metro, but for them to have a multi-faceted education for when they go out into the working world where sustainability is increasingly important.”