Norfolk's Thelma Drake nominated to lead Federal Transit Administration in trying time for transit

2018-02-14 | The Virginian-Pilot

Feb. 14--NORFOLK -- President Donald Trump has nominated Thelma Drake to lead the Federal Transit Administration, the agency that provides funding and policy to local public transit systems, including buses, subways, light rail and ferries.

But her appointment comes at a time when transit funding is under siege from the Trump administration. His 55-page infrastructure plan was released Monday and transit wasn't even mentioned in the executive summary.

A former congresswoman and state delegate, Drake is the city of Norfolk's assistant director of transportation and has lobbied for the city at the General Assembly since 2015.

Drake will still have to go through a confirmation process -- the FTA has not had a confirmed administrator since January 2014. The Administrator oversees 3,000 transit agencies nationwide, a $12 billion budget and 550 employees.

Trump's proposed budget cuts several grant FTA grant programs including phasing out the Capital Improvement Grants over the next decade, The Hill reports. "It could leave cities and states on the hook for billions of dollars in spending on public transportation projects that are already underway," according to an article published this week.

But even in a trying time for transit, having a local in the position could be a big advantage for the region and state, local transportation officials say.

Most notably, Hampton Roads Transit is in the process of studying a new light rail extension to the Norfolk Naval Station and will need federal funding to build it.

FTA provided $128 million in 2007 for the Tide's first 7.4-mile leg. It was supposed to pay for more than half of the project, but the total cost ended up at $318 million after nearly $86 million in cost overruns and running a year and a half behind schedule.

Last year, the FTA gave HRT a $500,000 grant to try out a new electric bus.

FTA administers grants for major transit projects and helps fund about 17 percent of HRT's regular operating budget.

HRT executive director William Harrell said Drake has had a great relationship with the transit company from working on customer issues to increasing ridership to technical issues and being involved in the legislative process.

"We would love see in her in that role," Harrell said. "To have someone that understands the importance of the military to the region and having familiarity with the transit issues of the region... that can only help Hampton Roads."

Drake, a Republican who lives in East Ocean View, was a realtor before she was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates in 1996 and Congress in 2004. She held the 2nd District seat for two terms and served on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

She helped bring Amtrak passenger service back to Norfolk when she was director of the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation under former Gov. Bob McDonnell from 2010-2013. There she also implemented new performance metrics that streamlined DRPT's operations and enhanced accountability for its projects, according to the White House press release.

Drake's nomination gained universal praise from those that have worked closely with her in recent years.

Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transit head Jennifer Mitchell said she's glad Trump nominated someone with Drake's unique background in both Congress and working directly in transit.

"I can't imagine any of those federal administration jobs are easy jobs, but the good news is Thelma comes in way up the learning curve on understanding transit," Mitchell said. "It's going to be a challenging time to navigate FTA through some of these (budget) changes, but she has always been pragmatic and understands the complexity of the issues.

"She's got a good combination of skills, background and knowledge to be really effective."

Norfolk Councilwoman Andria McClellan, a Democrat, tweeted praise for Drake saying she's "an excellent team member from whom I've learned so much on transportation issues and much more."

"She's caring, wise and reasonable," McClellan said. "The administration will be lucky to have her on their team."

Former Transportation Secretary and current Finance Secretary Aubrey Layne said he'd heard rumors of the nomination since late last year and said he's happy for Drake.

"Any role that has a Virginian and a Hampton Roads resident has got to be good for the area," Layne said.

He noted her biggest role may be guiding the struggling D.C. Metro subway to a better place. Its general manager has requested $500 million in new funding from Virginia, D.C. and Maryland to help right the ship.

Drake did not return a call Tuesday night after the White House sent out the press release around 7 p.m.

Pilot reporter Margaret Matray contributed to this report.