Public Works director wins national leadership award
Kristin Asher has been a fixture with the Public Works Department for 16 years and helped transform the city’s aging infrastructure to one that is recognized throughout the region as an example cities should strive to emulate. Recently, the American Public Works Association (APWA) recognized Asher as a Top Ten Public Works Leader of the Year.
“To be honest, I never strove for recognition like this. I just tried to do my best work for the residents I serve and staff I lead,” said Asher. “I am humbled to receive an award from an organization that is filled with people I idolize in the field of public works.”
Asher saw a career in the field of public works as an opportunity to use her sociology background and technical engineering skills in a way that helps the community and can improve the lives of its residents.
She started with the City of Richfield in 2004 as a project engineer. Eventually, she would assume the position of assistant city engineer, city engineer and assistant public works director before taking the position of public works director in 2014.
Her first major project after coming onboard with the City of Richfield was the reconstruction of the Lyndale Avenue Bridge, which crosses Interstate 494. At the time, that section of Lyndale Avenue experienced major traffic congestion and was a regular topic of concern amongst residents.
“There was a significant local system problem around the I-494 interchange and the Shops at Lyndale commercial center,” remembered Asher. “The city was able to redesign the bridge to improve current traffic and resident needs, but also to accommodate the future expansion of the I-494/35W interchange.”
In the field of public works, civil engineering and urban planning, the term “complete streets” has become a popular buzzword over the past decade. It is a road design approach that requires the planning, design, operation, and maintenance of streets to enable safe, convenient and comfortable travel and access for users of all ages and abilities regardless of their mode of transportation. Without knowing it, Asher has been practicing this approach for designing infrastructure projects long before it became popular.
“When undertaking an important infrastructure project, I do not just want to make it better, I want to make it the best it can be,” remarked Asher. “Residents are the experts when it comes to how they use a road, sidewalk, bike lane or trail. Without their input and expertise, our projects would not be half as successful and would meet far fewer needs. That is why we have created an extensive community engagement component for the planning of all infrastructure projects.”
Incorporating the needs of residents are what brought roundabouts to Richfield and it was Asher who championed their addition to the city’s infrastructure from the beginning.
“The intersection at 66th Street and Portland Avenue was one of the most dangerous in the county prior to its reconstruction in 2008,” asserted former City Manager Steve Devich. “Originally, we were going to replace the existing traffic signal with an updated model and keep the intersection the way it was. Kristin is the person that brought up the idea that changing it over to a roundabout could greatly enhance the safety of drivers and pedestrians, alike.”
Richfield is now home to seven roundabouts, which have decreased travel times on some of the city’s busiest roadways and made it safer for other modes of transportation.
After taking the helm at the Public Works Department, Asher realized that at the rate of repaving two miles of city street per year, it would take 43 years to resurface all of the city’s roads. With a road system that was badly in need of rejuvenation, she worked with the city council to create a plan that would repair all the city’s roads through the mill and overlay program in six years without placing an undue financial burden on residents.
“Kristin’s suggestion that we resurface all the city’s roads in a six-year time period was bold, but it was just what Richfield needed,” said former mayor and current Hennepin County Commissioner Debbie Goettel. “Typically, these projects are funded through special assessments to adjacent homeowners, but Kristin advocated that we spread the financial responsibility for this project to all residents through an increase in franchise fees. That made sense because it is not just the neighboring homeowners that use the roads, all of us do.”
Asher credits her staff as the main reason she has been so successful throughout her career with the city, and believes that it was only through their hard work and dedication that she was named a top ten leader in her field.
“Richfield’s public works employees are heroes in my book,” beamed Asher. “They work day and night to make sure the drinking water is flowing, roads are clear in the winter and that the ball fields are the best in the metro. My staff ensures that Richfield continues to be a great place to live, work, learn and play.”
During Asher’s tenure, the city has revitalized its infrastructure to the tune of nearly $100 million. These projects include the reconstruction of Lyndale Avenue, 66th Street, 76th Street, Lyndale Avenue Bridge and the 85-mile mill and overlay program.
She is not resting on her laurels though; she understands that a Public Works Department is never done working to improve the life of the city’s residents. In the future, she plans to work with the county to address the state of Nicollet and Penn Avenues, as well as revitalize Richfield’s underground utility infrastructure.
“Kristin has shepherded Richfield through projects that have transformed the city into a better place to raise a family or start a business,” said City Manager Katie Rodriguez. “I know that she will continue to deliver projects that will only further enhance the quality of everyone’s lives in the city for years to come.”