Obituaries : Samuel B. Nelson; Guided DWP, RTD

Times Staff Writer

Samuel B. Nelson, who served as general manager and chief engineer of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, and as chief executive of the Southern California Rapid Transit District, died Sunday in Palm Springs.

The 85-year-old Nelson had been ill for almost a year, but friends say he remained active, driving to Los Angeles periodically to attend meetings of an organization of former DWP employees.

Private funeral services are scheduled for Thursday in Inglewood.

Nelson's lengthy public service career started at DWP as a draftsman in 1926, and he rose to general manager in 1961. During his years in the district's top post, he supervised construction of more than $1 billion in facilities to bring water to the Los Angeles area.

The projects included completion of the second Los Angeles Aqueduct, a $100-million program to deliver water from the Owens Valley in anticipation of a population growth of 750,000. Additionally, the DWP's $32-million general office building, across from the Music Center, was completed in 1965 during his tenure.

Nelson was 64 when he retired from the DWP in 1967, but he remained active, joining Daniel, Mann, Johnson, Mendenhall, a Los Angeles firm of consulting engineers and architects, as a vice president.

A few months later, then-Gov. Ronald Reagan appointed Nelson, a Republican, as state director of public works, a post in which Nelson was in charge of California's $1-billion-a-year freeway building program.

In late 1968, Nelson was named general manager of RTD, one of the nation's largest transit agencies, then under investigation by the district attorney's office for reported irregularities in the sale and purchase of equipment.

His appointment was seen as an attempt to improve the district's image as RTD directors prepared to go to the voters for approval of a $2.5-billion rapid transit bond proposition in the general election.

Nelson grew to favor "bus rapid transit" as an important element in the district's overall transportation plan. Perhaps the most important project during Nelson's time as RTD general manager was the proposal for the $36-million busway along the San Bernardino Freeway.

When he resigned from the transit district in October, 1970, to return to consulting work, the district's board was moving toward development of a rail rapid transit system. Nelson denied that his enthusiasm for buses, rather than a rail system, led to his decision to leave. But he also said:

"When you have a fire and a broken hose, you don't wait for a new hose to try and put the fire out," he said.

Nelson, who was born in Kansas City, Mo., moved to Los Angeles in 1916. He graduated from Pomona College in 1924 and did graduate work at Cornell University.

He was named one of the American Public Works Assn.'s top 10 public works men of the year in 1965. He served as director and chairman of the engineering committee of the Feather River Project Assn., which delivered water to Southern California by the California Aqueduct.

He was a member of numerous organizations, including the Colorado River Board, the Electric Research Council, the California Municipal Utilities Assn., Town Hall, Hollywood Masonic Lodge, Al Malaikah Shrine and Wilshire Country Club.

He leaves his wife, Judith, and two daughters.

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