December 17, 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
Still, Lee and others are concerned about whether Kopelousos will be able to maintain her commitments, particularly if Crist leaves office for a vice presidential bid. And while Kopelousos seems to have steered DOT away from the Heartland Parkway, a particular point of contention in the Future Corridors initiative, she hasn’t taken the politically dicey step of removing it from long-term plans. Kopelousos already suffered a defeat during the recent legislative session over one of her top priorities: Lawmakers voted against final approval of a project between DOT and CSX Transportation that would have brought commuter rail to central Florida. Liability protection for CSX — a key part of the agreement — proved too controversial. Sen. Paula Dockery of Lakeland, who opposed the deal, says she felt Kopelousos “inherited a flawed negotiated contract ... but where she faltered was defending it to the end.”

Rebuilding phase

Road Test:
Kopelousos’s greatest challenge: Easing traffic gridlock at a time when costs are skyrocketing and revenue is falling. Over the last three years, DOT was forced to defer 268 projects.
[Photo: Jeffrey Camp]

As she works on the state and federal issues, Kopelousos has no small share of departmental challenges. Her leapfrog ascension may have prompted an exodus of senior management at DOT. Two assistant secretaries — for finance and administration and for intermodal systems development — are among several who’ve left in the past year; the agency’s popular chief engineer, Ananth Prasad, is the latest to leave for a private firm. Her defenders point out that the agency always struggles with losing talented staffers to private engineering firms, a particular problem in this era of privatization.

They also think her political skills and depth of knowledge more than compensate for not knowing the technical specifications of concrete mixes. “She’s the person who can lead us to that new place,” says Marcos Marchena, chairman of the Florida Transportation Commission. “I’m not saying she can do it by herself, but she is the leader with the right mix of knowledge of the transportation industry and a whole lot of political savvy.”

Kopelousos, now working to rebuild her senior staff, remains ever-conscious about making connections, whether human or intermodal. It’s a lesson she carries from Fowler, her mentor, who died of a brain hemorrhage in 2005. The other powerful woman in her life, her mother, also died suddenly of a brain aneurism — in 1984, when Kopelousos was only 14. Always in the back of her mind, she says, is the question she imagines her mother and Fowler would ask: “Is it the right thing?”

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

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