September 2, 2014

Profile: Stephanie Kopelousos

Hard Road Ahead for State Roads

Florida's new transportation chief wants to take the state in a new direction. Mapping it out will be tough in an era of diminishing resources.

Cynthia Barnett | 6/1/2008
In her first year on the job, Kopelousos has kept the pledge she made on her first day: Not to be “locked into the old ways of doing things.” The new secretary has been known to drive across the state to research issues firsthand or attend public meetings to answer questions and reassure stakeholders about DOT’s willingness to listen.

“I think she will prove just the leader for this era of diminishing resources. Her extensive experience in Washington is really going to help this state.”
— Lester Abberger
Chairman, 1000 Friends of Florida
Case in point: A three-month resurfacing project shut down half of Jacksonville’s Mathews Bridge last year, sending drivers on a detour that added more than an hour to their trip home. Local leaders asked the DOT to simply reverse the traffic flow each day, allowing commuters to take the bridge into town in the mornings and back out in the afternoons. DOT officials said no — too difficult, too expensive. Kopelousos drove over, scoped out the situation and worked out the lane shifts.

“She always wants to do things the right way, not necessarily the easiest way,” says Alexis Yarbrough, DOT’s general counsel. “It’s refreshing and warm from a CEO of a company this size.” Yarbrough says Kopelousos’ signature question — “Is this right for Florida?” — is becoming a mantra/guiding principle at DOT.

Other issues pose challenges more complex than swapping lanes. Skyrocketing construction costs combined with decreasing revenues forced the agency to defer 268 projects over the last three years worth some $5.7 billion. Florida lawmakers cut an additional $300 million from the agency’s budget this past legislative session.

Stephanie Kopelousos
Secretary, Florida Department
of Transportation
Age: 38
Born: Jacksonville
Raised: Clay County
Alma mater: University of Alabama,
B.A. in political science, 1993
Previous positions: DOT chief of staff, 2005 to 2006; Washington liaison, Florida Departments of Transportation and Community Affairs, 2001 to 2005; legislative aide to U.S. Rep. Tillie K. Fowler, R-Jacksonville, 1993 to 2001
Drives: A 1995 Toyota Corolla with
more than 150,000 miles on it:
“In my family, we always kept a car
until it died.”

Next year, Congress takes up the enormous federal highway transportation reauthorization bill, always a battle for Florida, a “donor” state that gets back only 87 cents of every dollar in federal gas tax money it sends to Washington.

Private funding

A bigger problem is that the gas-tax-based funding system will never cover the nation’s transportation infrastructure needs. Kopelousos believes that Florida should establish itself as a model for new types of transportation financing. She is an energetic and well-versed proponent of public-private partnerships, or P3s. DOT is using the new, private funding models to build the First Coast Outer Beltway in northeast Florida, the Interstate 75 expansion in southwest Florida and the Port of Miami tunnel.

While Floridians generally have supported the shift to P3s, the model is far more controversial in other states, where public and political opposition have halted privately built or managed highways. In Texas, activists and state legislators are trying to put the brakes on plans by Gov. Rick Perry for a 4,000-mile network of toll roads. Kopelousos worries the federal government may react by curtailing states’ ability to execute P3s. “There’s great concern that Congress could take our flexibility away from us,” she says. “We’ve been very responsible about P3s, and that’s the story we’ve got to tell.”

At home, Kopelousos’ greatest challenge is a public fed up with traffic gridlock. The governor told her to make easing congestion a top priority. Of all the issues Floridians brought up during his campaign, congestion was bigger than education, environment, taxes, or any other topic, Crist said.

Following Crist’s road map, Kopelousos is zeroing in on the state’s current highways. Notably, she’s much less fixated than her predecessors on DOT’s controversial Future Corridors initiative, which identified rural areas — many of them environmentally sensitive — for long-term transportation planning. “We are focusing on existing corridors, and particularly those that are most congested — I-95, I-595, I-75 in southwest Florida,” Kopelousos says. “In tight budget times, this is where we have to focus our resources. It can’t be about transportation driving growth.”

Those words, along with the time she’s spent on a number of public transit projects around Florida, have won her friends in the environmental community. “She is a breath of fresh air to work with, especially compared to the pave-it boys,” says Charles Lee, director of advocacy for Audubon of Florida. Kopelousos has pushed DOT to move ahead with the once-uncertain Wekiva Parkway, a $2-billion project critical to both Orlando business leaders and the environmental community.

Tags: Politics & Law, Big Bend, Government/Politics & Law

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