Updated 12 months ago
With no real job lined up, she worked as a hostess at a restaurant to make ends meet. But she didn’t have to work there long. A family friend, a fellow member of the Greek Orthodox Church in Jacksonville, owned the shoe-repair shop frequented by the late U.S. Rep. Tillie Fowler, one of the most powerful women in Congress. Fowler offered Kopelousos an internship in 1993 based on her cobbler’s recommendation.
Kopelousos — her parents named her Stavroula but always called her Stephanie — proved herself quickly. In a month, she was promoted to staff assistant. By 1998, she was named a senior legislative aide, focusing on transportation and emergency-management policy. When Fowler retired in 2001, Kopelousos was chosen Washington liaison for the Florida Departments of Community Affairs and Transportation. In 2005, DOT Secretary Denver Stutler made her his chief of staff.
Along the way, she established herself as a tireless worker whose outsized smile belied her tenacity. “She was always the first one in the office before 7 a.m., the last to leave, and the most-prepared,” says Fowler’s former chief of staff, David Gilliand, now senior officer for legislative affairs at The Pew Charitable Trusts. “Some of the smartest people on Capitol Hill are the biggest jerks, and that limits them. Stephanie succeeds because she’s the whole package: She’s smart, she’s prepared, she works hard, and everyone likes her.”
That combination helped her make the list of finalists for DOT secretary that the Florida Transportation Commission forwarded to Gov. Charlie Crist last year. Still, her appointment came as “a shocker,” says Don Crane, founder of Floridians for Better Transportation. Indeed, Kopelousos, 37 years old at the time, became the youngest secretary in the history of the department. She is the first non-engineer to run it in decades. She is the first woman at the agency’s helm, and she was chosen over several candidates more traditionally qualified, including another woman with a master’s degree in transportation engineering and 12 years of experience at DOT. Kopelousos faces no shortage of critics who say she lacks the experience to run one of Florida’s largest departments, with an $8-billion budget and 7,000 employees. 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
— Lester Abberger
Chairman, 1000 Friends of Florida
“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.
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.
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. 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.”
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?”