NEW YORK—Liking your job is always a perk. Loving your job is a blessing. Thomas Abdallah, chief environmental engineer for the MTA, is in the latter category. As a 25-year employee of the MTA, Abdallah loves his job, his profession, and the challenges of making the MTA a more sustainable system.
“I have been very lucky … I believe if you work hard and do the right thing, then luck will follow.”
Abdallah sat down with The Epoch Times on his 50th birthday, June 21, to reflect on his 50 years in life—half of which he has spent at the MTA.
Lifelong New Yorker
Abdallah is a born and raised New Yorker; he grew up in Brooklyn and lives there today. He says he was a typical neighborhood kid, loving sports like baseball, basketball, and stickball.
I believe if you work hard and do the right thing, then luck will follow.
Like any young sports fan, he had dreams of playing for his favorite team, the Mets, but he soon realized his energy and drive were best served in the classroom.
“I was very competitive in that time in my life and that actually carried over into my school work. I was very competitive with other kids about grades,” Abdallah said.
In first grade Abdallah became interested in learning the multiplication tables and got flash cards to help him learn. Before long he could rattle them off from memory, an exquisite feat for someone so young.
“I remember my first grade teacher was amazed that I knew all the times tables between 1 and 12,” he said.
With a knack for math and a love for science, Abdallah added his passion for the environment with the first celebration of Earth Day in 1970.
The new initiative sparked his interest for protecting the environment. “Even as a kid, I was very interested in pollution and how it was affecting people, especially in our city,” Abdallah said. “I didn’t know at the time I would be very lucky to have a job that prevents pollution and looks for alternate ways of energy.”
Abdallah was born to be an engineer. In addition to his school mascot being the “engineers” at Brooklyn Technical High School, his father was an engineer, working for 50 years right up until he passed away in 2010.
Abdallah recalled his father, Eli, cornering him at the dinner table, rattling off details of whatever project he was working on, be it a bridge or a road. It was something he did not appreciate as much at the time, but did years later. “When I got into this business and I wanted to talk to him about my project, he would say, ‘No, let’s go to Atlantic City, let’s eat something,’” Abdallah recalled with a laugh. “We had a great relationship.”
Starting From the Bottom
Abdallah began working at the MTA in 1987 as an assistant environmental engineer. It is the same department he now heads. “We were 8 people at the time. Now we are a core team of 60,” he said.
The 1980s were a time when environmental protection was just coming into vogue. Laws had been on the books with regard to protection, but there was not much compliance. That was beginning to change and companies needed people dedicated to making sure the laws were followed.
Abdallah spent the first few years of his career doing mostly compliance work but then in the mid to late 1990s, his division began creating new policies to improve on what the law required.
Abdallah said New York City became the first city to incorporate sustainable operations, construction processes, and designs with the environment in mind. We now call it “going green,” but at the time it was called “design for the environment.”
“We kind of started that revolution in the late 1990s, and a lot of our sister agencies in Boston, Chicago, Atlanta, and Washington have all followed our suit,” Abdallah said. “I started to realize I could have a positive effect by doing sustainable things in our capital construction projects.”
Technology has advanced considerably since he started at his job, but Abdallah noticed the incorporation of natural elements with the technology as of late. He said in 13 maintenance shops, the paint was removed from skylights to let in natural light, cutting down on electrical costs.
“I think the most practical stuff is what we started with,” Adballah said. He joked at how such a simple concept it was, “When cavemen first built a cave, they probably thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to get some light in here?’ so they put a hole in to get some light.”
Abdallah said his team is also implementing the use of solar power to help offset their use of 2 billion kilowatt hours of electricity and green roofs to help keep buildings cooler.
Some new technology Abdallah would love to see used, however, is much harder to implement on New York City’s 107-year-old subway system. On a recent trip to Europe, his first time out of the country, Abdallah saw how the trains in Bilbao, Spain, used regenerative braking. When the trains braked it supplied power back into the power grid, something not possible here.
“It is very difficult to retrofit that technology and make it work efficiently since we are not building from scratch,” Abdallah said.
The Next Generation
Among making the subway system more efficient and greener, Abdallah takes time to speak to youth in high schools and colleges, hoping to spark interest in his field.In addition to discussing perks of his job, he also passes on the life lessons he has learned over the past 50 years. “My message is work to your best capacity because if you want something bad enough, you are not going to fall backwards into it. You are going to work hard and if you work hard, good things will happen,” he said.
As Abdallah prepared for an evening out with family to celebrate his milestone birthday, he was all smiles. “I don’t feel old at all, actually. I feel like I am just going to start again … phase II. This is just a midway point. I am really looking forward to the next 50 years and the next 25 years working,” he said. “These last 25 years at transit have gone by very fast. Sometimes I have to remind myself to just enjoy it. Slow down a little bit and enjoy it.”
Not bad advice for all New Yorkers.
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