Memorial Tributes: Volume 26
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  • ROBERT S. O'NEIL (1935-2021)



    ROBERT S. O’NEIL was born on the South Side of Chicago in 1935. He passed away from coronavirus complications on February 3, 2021, in Bethesda, Maryland. He was the older of two children. His father was an engineer for the city of Chicago and his mother worked as an administrator in the school system. Bob grew up in Chicago and graduated from Saint Ignatius High School. He received his BS in civil engineering from the University of Notre Dame and earned an MS in engineering from Catholic University in Washington, DC.

    Bob got married in 1958 to Barbara Gorman, who lived a few houses down from his family in Chicago. He was an officer in the US Air Force. After his military duty, the engineering firm De Leuw, Cather & Company recruited him to work on the Washington Metro Rail project in the 1960s. The O’Neils and their four children moved from the Midwest to the Washington, DC, area. Bob’s entire post-military career was with De Leuw, Cather & Co. and its successor, the Parsons Corporation. He was president of the Parsons Transportation Group for 10 years prior to retiring. In his role as head of the Transportation Division, he oversaw about 3,000 employees and an annual budget of about $1 billion.

    Bob traveled the world working on the design and construction of mass transit projects, tunnels, highways, and bridges over the course of his career. In addition to the Washington system, transit projects that Bob guided included Los Angeles, Kaohsiung (Taipei), Shanghai, Kuala Lumpur, Atlanta, Baltimore, and Miami. He also served on the board of managers for the Northeast Corridor Rail Improvement Project, the largest railroad rehabilitation program in US history, and was a principal technical advisor to the Managing Banks on the English Channel Tunnel Project.

    Bob was also active in highways. He led the design for the $1.5 billion San Joaquin Hills design-build project and the design of the $1.3 billion I-15 reconstruction project in Salt Lake City, which used many innovative design and contracting techniques to compete for the 2000 Winter Olympics. Other major projects where he played a key role included the Boston Central Artery, Woodrow Wilson Bridge, Alameda Corridor in California, East Side Access in New York City, highways in Dubai, and the Franconia Notch Highway along the White Mountains in New England. 

    For Bob, his proudest moment and the pinnacle of his career was leading the building of the Washington region’s massive Metrorail system. On that 103-mile, $11 billion system, considered by many to be the world’s finest urban rail transit system, Bob advanced from surveyor to project engineer to chief engineer and project director. He enjoyed the challenge of designing and constructing the rail system that stretched from DC – under streets and through deep tunnels – out to the suburbs of Maryland and Virginia. Under his management and engineering direction, the Washington system came to represent the first US use of a large-span vaulted station construction in rock and soft ground. The design featured gasketed and belted segmental concrete lining for a major river crossing, large-diameter earth pressure balance machines, horizontal jet grouting, segmental steel lining, water-tight tunnels, and the use of floating slabs to reduce ground vibration.

    Bob was a fellow of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) and the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE). He was a member of the American Public Transit Association (APTA), the American Railway Engineering Association (AREA), the American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA), and the International Road Federation (IRF). He served on the APTA Committees on Construction and Heavy Rail Transit, as a director of the ARTBA Board of Directors and as president of its Planning and Design Division, and as a member of the IRF Board of Directors. He also served on the NAS/NAE Committee on Infrastructure Research for the National Research Council.

    Bob was recognized for his engineering and professional contributions. He received the ASCE James Laurie Prize and the Leif Sverdrup Civil Engineering Management Award (2002). He was the recipient of the College of Engineering Honor Award of the University of Notre Dame in 1988.

    In Bob’s honor, Parsons endowed a scholarship at the University of Notre Dame, his alma mater. Bob was inducted into the National Academy of Construction (NAC) in 2009. He was awarded the President’s Medal from the ASCE in 2007.1

    A longtime friend and colleague, Cliff Eby, a former Parsons executive who knew O’Neil for four decades, said that Bob stood out among his peers. He had a strong interest in his profession that showed in his work, and he had an unusual ability to quickly find gaps or potential problems in a project’s design. Bob was particularly interested in the careers of young engineers, and he often spent considerable time in mentoring them at the firm.

    Bob was a loving father and grandfather. When his children were young and the Washington Metrorail project was underway, he would take them to each station as it would be completed, and he would point out some of the unique features of the station. After his death, one of his grandchildren recalled how he taught her to drive and it often led to a treat. “All roads led to an ice cream shop,” she said. "He loved ice cream".


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