On June 10, 2021, Nuria I. Fernandez was confirmed by the U.S Senate as administrator of the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). This Senate confirmation by voice vote made Fernandez the first Afro-Latina to lead FTA. (An agency within the U.S. Department of Transportation [USDOT], FTA provides both financial and technical assistance to a wide range of local public transit systems.)
Fernandez was born on November 15, 1959, in Panama City, the capital of the Republic of Panama. She immigrated to the United States to pursue her college studies, and graduated from Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois, in 1982 with a B.S. in civil engineering. During her time at Bradley University, Fernandez interned with the Panama Canal Company in the country of her birth. After her graduation, that company hired her to work for the engineering division of the Panama Canal’s Gatún Locks (on the Caribbean side of Panama). Fernandez has long been familiar with the Panama Canal because she grew up in that part of the world and also due to the fact that one of her great-grandfathers helped build the canal.
Fernandez did not work long at the Gatún Locks, however. As she later recounted, “I’ve never thought of pursuing a career in the maritime field.” Fernandez ended up working for the Chicago Department of Public Works from 1983 to 1990. In 1990, she graduated from Roosevelt University in the Windy City with an M.B.A. Fernandez worked for the Chicago Transit Authority from 1990 to 1993. She then served as special assistant to the assistant secretary for budget and programs at USDOT in 1993-94 and assistant general manager at the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority between 1994 and 1997.
In 1997, President Bill Clinton appointed Fernandez to serve as deputy administrator of FTA. She became FTA’s acting administrator after Gordon Linton stepped down as administrator of that agency in 1999. The following year, Clinton nominated Fernandez to be the next FTA administrator. In December 2000, though, the Senate returned her nomination to Clinton just a few weeks before the end of his term as president.
Fernandez subsequently worked for the California-based engineering and construction firm Earth Tech and the Colorado-based engineering company CH2M. In addition, she served as the commissioner for the Chicago Department of Aviation between 2006 and 2008.
In 2011, Fernandez was appointed chief operating officer of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in the New York City metropolitan area. She served in this position until 2013, when she became the general manager and chief executive officer of the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority in California. Fernandez remained in this role until President Joe Biden appointed her FTA’s deputy administrator in January 2021. Nearly five months later, she became not only FTA’s first Afro-Latina administrator but also the first administrator of that agency to be confirmed by the Senate in about a dozen years..
A couple of months before she assumed the role of FTA administrator, Fernandez was a speaker at an American Public Transportation Association mobility conference. She used the opportunity to underscore what led her to a transit career in the first place. Fernandez said, “I chose this field because I wanted to do my part to support what transit makes possible: a world of possibilities through access to jobs, schools and services. Done right, done equitably, our transit systems lift up people and lift up communities.”
Photo Credit: Federal Transit Administration
For more information on Nuria I. Fernandez, please check out https://www.transit.dot.gov/officials/biographies/nuria-fernandez
Additional information on Latino transportation leaders who have served in the U.S. federal government is available at https://www.transportation.gov/blog/Destinations-by-DOT/latinos-leading-way-transportation-history