C.M. “Max” Gilliss, a veteran state and local transportation executive who fought for a public rapid transit system in Southern California in the early 1960s, has died. He was 87.
Gilliss died of pneumonia Aug. 25 at Rancho Springs Medical Center in Murrieta.
Appointed by then-Gov. Goodwin Knight, Gilliss served several months in 1958 as director of the California Department of Public Works.
The agency oversaw the California Division of Highways, the predecessor of the current state Department of Transportation.
Gilliss next served briefly as Los Angeles County road commissioner.
But he earned far more attention as head of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority and its successor, the Southern California Rapid Transit District, from 1959 until 1965 when he left to join a Los Angeles engineering firm.
Gilliss was often at loggerheads with the county Board of Supervisors over building a subway, monorail or other rapid transit system. Gilliss advocated financing such a system by increases in license plate fees and sales and property taxes.
Highway traffic would soon become gridlocked, he predicted in a 1959 address to a contractors’ organization, “unless the highways are complemented by some system which will move a lot of people comfortably, conveniently and swiftly.”
During his tenure, Gilliss also reluctantly presided over the demise of Pacific Electric Co.'s Red Car rail system in 1961. Although he advocated retaining the final lines to Compton and Long Beach, it fell to him to oversee establishment of bus lines as substitutes for the electric trains.
Gilliss had a long career in transportation and planning, holding key posts in Honolulu, Riverside and the Temecula area as well as in Los Angeles.
Gilliss, who was born April 8, 1918, in Oklahoma, also was involved in music throughout his life, once playing trombone for Stan Kenton’s big band. In later years he performed at local functions with his own band.
Describing himself as a “Dust Bowl Okie,” Gilliss came to California at age 15 and picked tomatoes in Indio. He studied highway engineering at Riverside City College and UCLA.
He began his career in Riverside, where he was a transportation liaison to government agencies for IBM Engineering. In 1939, he was named a deputy road commissioner for Riverside County.
Gilliss joined the state Department of Public Works in the late 1940s, helping to develop the state’s freeway system.
In addition to serving as the department’s youngest director at age 39, he also was a legislative assistant to Gov. Knight and to Gov. Pat Brown.
In 1972, Gilliss moved to Hawaii, where he became Honolulu’s director of transportation and public works.
He returned to California in 1976, settling in the burgeoning Temecula Valley.
He was appointed to the Murrieta City Council in 1993 and served many years on area planning agencies, often interceding with Caltrans to get bridges and other projects constructed.
Gilliss is survived by his second wife, Barbara; daughters Donna Gilliss Crocker of San Luis Obispo and Charlene Gilliss Dyer of Kauai, Hawaii; two stepchildren, Kim Smith of Temecula and Brian Keating of San Mateo, Calif.; and several grandchildren.