San Jose transit chief was touted for Biden’s top transportation post
Nuria Fernandez, VTA CEO, waves out of a cable car at a news conference celebrating the 100-year anniversary of Women's Right to Vote this past August. Before President-elect Joe Biden named Pete Buttigieg to be his transportation secretary, some women and transportation leaders touted Fernandez for the role. Photo courtesy of Brandi Childress.

Before President-elect Joe Biden nominated former South Bend Mayor and presidential rival Pete Buttigieg to be his Secretary of Transportation, there was buzz that a notable local official might be in the running for the role.

Nuria Fernandez, the CEO and general manager of the Santa Clara County Valley Transportation Authority, made the short list of recommended candidates for the position and was touted for it by local transportation legend — and national transit authority — Rod Diridon, Sr.

Fernandez declined to say whether Biden ever talked to her about the position, and his transition team did not respond to a request for comment. But Diridon, at least, thought she had a real shot at it.

“I believe I’m talking to the next Secretary of Transportation of the United States of America,” he said last month while Fernandez interviewed him for a Commonwealth Club event.

Fernandez’s name also appeared on a short list of cabinet candidates circulated by Nelson Mullins, a South Carolina law firm that specializes in government relations and national lobbying efforts.

It would not have been a huge surprise if Fernandez had been seriously considered for the role. Unlike Buttigieg, Fernandez has a 35-year history of working on transportation issues and managing transportation agencies.

Fernandez was a final contender for Secretary of Transportation at the beginning of the Obama administration, according to Diridon. During the Clinton administration, she served as Acting Federal Transit Administrator, where she helped the administration secure funding for building and expanding bus and rail services.

As VTA’s leader, she oversees 2,100 employees and is leading the charge on a $7 billion extension of Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) and rail services in Silicon Valley. She is also currently serving her second year as the chair of the American Public Transportation Association, a national advocacy group for transit agencies.

Before leading VTA, Fernandez held leadership roles at the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the Chicago Transit Authority and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. And she oversaw O’Hare and Midway Airports as commissioner for the Chicago Department of Aviation.

But in addition to her experience making her a seemingly obvious candidate for the job, Fernandez, a Black and Latina woman, was recommended by advocates wanting to see more women and people of color in leadership roles.

Earlier this month, Win With Black Women, a nationwide collective of women leaders, penned an open letter to Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris that included lists of “qualified Black women” it urged should be considered for top positions in the administration.

The women leaders included Fernandez, who was born in Panama, as a candidate to head the Department of Transportation. They also included San Francisco Mayor London Breed on that list.

“It is long past time that the effective, accomplished leadership of Black women currently serving in areas of significant policy that impacts our nation are recognized and given full consideration for the statutory positions in your administration’s cabinet,” the coalition wrote. “Just as Black women and Black Americans were key to your election in November, we are key to the success of your Administration and the implementation of your vision.”

Diridon touted Fernandez for the job

Fernandez’s potential candidacy was promoted by Diridon, a nationally renowned transportation expert and consultant. Fernandez’s experience in helping run numerous transportation agencies around the nation makes her a great candidate to run things on the federal level, he told San José Spotlight.

“We are very, very lucky to have her as the general manager of VTA,” he said.

Through her spokeswoman, Brandi Childress, Fernandez declined to say whether she had discussed the Transportation Secretary role with the incoming Biden administration. But in a statement, Fernandez said she was humbled to be recommended by the women leaders for the position.

“I am even more humbled to be recognized for my dedication to public service and being an influencer in the public transportation industry,” Fernandez said. “I am among a list of great company: highly qualified, talented Black women who have mastered their craft and dedicated their lives to making their areas of expertise better.”

While some national policy advocates were rooting for Fernandez, some local transit advocates weren’t as excited at the idea of her taking on a national transportation role.

Indeed, the idea that Fernandez may have been considered to head the Transportation Department — and, effectively, transit efforts nationwide — comes as a shock, said Eugene Bradley, the founder of Silicon Valley Transit Users, a public transit watchdog group. Amid budget cuts and the agency’s focus on longer-term projects such as the BART extension, VTA proposed reducing bus hours and eliminated the Almaden light-rail line in San Jose, making its service less useful for area commuters, he said.

Fernandez has “been head of a transit agency who’s seen ridership drop by thousands of riders — even before COVID,” Bradley said.

 

But other transit advocates cut Fernandez some slack. Fernandez has had to balance a number of conflicting interests as VTA general manager, including caring for local transit operations, contributing to other transit agencies, maintaining highways and securing funding for local streets and roads, all while looking ahead to the future of Caltrain and BART, transit advocate Monica Mallon said.

“She does the best that she can. A lot of the problems actually are just because our transit advocacy is weak here,” Mallon said. “I think she would be great in the Biden administration.”

Buttigieg may not have the extensive transit knowledge that Fernandez has, but he became a contender for the presidential nomination in part by expressing his zeal for strengthening the nation’s infrastructure. And while he’s not Black, he will help Biden’s goal to appoint a diverse cabinet; Buttigieg will be the first openly gay person to hold a permanent presidential cabinet position.

Transit agencies are enthusiastic about Buttigieg as the new Transportation Secretary, Childress said.

“We, as an industry, are looking forward to working with (Buttigieg) on critical transportation issues like emergency funding for transit,” Childress said.

Contact Carly Wipf at [email protected] or follow @CarlyChristineW on Twitter.

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