Working in governmental affairs was an unexpected career path for Vicki Wooldridge, a natural-born artist and art school attendee. However, soon after deeming commercial art a field too fickle to pursue professionally, she began looking for a job that could put food on the table and support what she calls a “bad shoe habit.” Impressively, high heels are a staple of Wooldridge’s wardrobe.
She found an administrative job for a university in central Florida. But government work still wasn’t on her radar until a close friend, who worked for Florida Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), made a suggestion.
“She told me ‘you’re such a people person, you’d do great in my line of work,’” Wooldridge recounts. “On the job, I’m an extrovert — I’m very passionate about what I do.”
Two days later, she saw an opening at the local state senator’s office and applied. Wooldridge didn’t get the job, but the office suggested she call Rep. Harry Goode, in Melbourne, Fla., who was in need of a house aide. “Goode said to me, ‘I hear you know someone in Bill Nelson’s office…if you’re good enough for him, you’re good enough for me,’ and that was all it took,” Wooldridge says.
She went on to spend nine years as a house aide before transitioning to a lobbying firm to work as a contract lobbyist. Everything she knew, she learned from experience.
“When it comes to lobbying, I’m a firm believer there’s no better education of the legislative process than your first session,” Wooldridge says.
It was in this position that Wooldridge was first exposed to the transportation industry. Tri-Rail, of the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority (SFRTA), was a client of her firm.
“I developed a good idea of what state transportation looked like because I was placed as liaison between the train agency and the firm,” she says. “I attended all their board meetings.”
Her intimate knowledge of the organization continued to grow, and in 2008, she received a phone call from Tri-Rail’s executive director asking if she’d be interested in coming on as staff. Historically, Tri-Rail had two separate state and federal affairs managers, but the decision was made to combine the roles, making Wooldridge the official government affairs manager of SFRTA.
“At that point, I had about 14 years of state experience, but Washington was a welcomed challenge,” Wooldridge said. “Executive Director Joe Giulietti, with over 40 years of experience at the federal level, taught me everything he knew.”
Wooldridge’s biggest responsibility is ensuring the future of the agency through her legislative consulting team at the federal, state and local levels. This includes not only substantive changes, but appropriations and the funding process as well. The smaller picture, according to Wooldridge, involves relationship building and educating those, including elected officials, who can really make a difference for SFRTA’s mission.
“When a legislative session comes along, you only get a two-minute sound bite,” Wooldridge says. “So, when elected officials are home in their district offices, that is the time to talk. When they think trains, I want them to think SFRTA.”
One of Wooldridge’s proudest accomplishments to date is changing SFRTA from a regional organization to a transportation authority through legislation.
“That was a big push, and now we oversee not just trains, but shuttle buses and more, ensuring the mobility of people,” she says. “It’s an ongoing challenge to ensure that everybody understands what we’re capable of doing.”
SFRTA is celebrating its 25th year in business with many new developments on the horizon. Projects include installing Wi-Fi on the trains within the next year, launching an upgraded website and mobile app with real-time information, and completing a $2 billion ground transportation hub at Miami International Airport.
“Where the agency’s heading is really exciting,” says Wooldridge. “To me, it’s a no-brainer to have good transportation available to folks who not only need it but want it.”