Women In Transportation: Karen Rae

Posted on September 22, 2011 by Joanne Tucker, Assistant Editor

Within two weeks at her new position as deputy administrator, Karen Rae had to quickly produce a high-speed rail strategic plan with her team under Ray LaHood's leadership.
Within two weeks at her new position as deputy administrator, Karen Rae had to quickly produce a high-speed rail strategic plan with her team under Ray LaHood's leadership.
While working for the New York Department of Transportation (NYDOT) as deputy commissioner in 2009, Karen Rae received a phone call inquiring if she'd be interested in a job for the Obama administration. "I thought my friends were playing a joke," she says, but after finally meeting with the deputy chief of staff, she knew the opportunity was real. "I was both shocked and excited when it happened," she says.

Within two weeks at her new position as deputy administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), Rae had to quickly produce a high-speed rail strategic plan with her team under the leadership of Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood. "We believe we must continue to grow and expand freight and passenger rail service," she says, adding, federal partnerships continue to grow as more states are now developing rail systems.

"It is not simply a rail or nothing scenario," she says. "It's about the role rail will play in our national transportation system."

Rae dedicates much of her time to keeping states informed of opportunities and offering technical assistance through regular conference calls with state transportation partners. She says she understands that a strong bond between the federal agency and state departments is critical.

"We have choices," she says. "We can do nothing — we can do exactly the same thing we've done — or we can consider how to really get the most out of our transportation system and this includes putting rail on equal footing."

After her daughter was born, Rae says she had a "career breakthrough." She began work as director at Glens Falls, N.Y., a four-bus operation that serviced nine cities. She says it was this position at Greater Glens Falls Transit Department that allowed her to gain knowledge on local, state and federal governments. "The diesel fuel started to take over my brain," she laughs, and from here she decided on transportation as her career. By 1992, she headed to Buffalo, N.Y., to serve as administrative deputy of a multi-modal transit authority run by Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority. She was then promoted to director of surface transportation, where she organized a community-led redesign of the transit services called "Hublink."

After seven years in Buffalo, Rae was offered a position as GM of Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Capital Metro) in Austin, Texas, which was under federal investigation. She spent her immediate focus rebuilding the community's trust and confidence, and began the overhaul of the 162-mile freight rail system.

"I did more than 200 meetings in six months leading up to the light rail project being advanced," she says. "Sometimes it was over a kitchen table, but it was critical to be out there and be the face of the agency."

Rae devoted four years at Capital Metro before getting an offer from Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, who wanted to elevate rail and public transportation while in office. In one project, Rae advanced the Dulles Rail Line and moved the project forward into the preliminary engineering stage by securing initial federal funding. She also secured the first dedicated rail fund for the state.

In her last duties before going to the FRA, Rae also served as deputy secretary for passenger rail and transit at Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, where her team streamlined 20 transportation programs into three, and completed implementation of a 110-mph rail service on the Keystone Corridor. As well, she was NYDOT deputy commissioner, in which she was responsible for policy, planning and the finances of all transportation networks in the state. 

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