Honored to Serve: A Conversation with Nicole R. Nason
Nicole R. Nason is the Administrator of the Federal Highway Administration. Deputy FHWA Administrator Mala K. Parker recently spoke with Nason about her career path, her goal of reducing fatalities on the Nation's roadways, and her advice to women looking to begin careers in transportation. What follows are excerpts from their discussion.
Parker: What was the career trajectory that led you to become the FHWA Administrator?
Nason: I've been blessed in my life to be supported by many leaders who have allowed me to work on issues I am passionate about and find inspiring. I have always been fascinated by Government service, and I selected a school in Washington, DC, specifically because I was interested in working in Government. I went to law school, spent several years working on Capitol Hill, and then had the extraordinary opportunity to serve as President George W. Bush's Assistant Secretary for Government Affairs and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administrator. I love the U.S. Department of Transportation, and I am thrilled to be back serving as the 20th FHWA Administrator. It is truly an honor to be trusted by President Trump and Secretary Chao to be at the helm of this organization.
Parker: How do you maintain a healthy work-life balance?
Nason: Fortunately, I have a very supportive spouse and my three children are always rooting for me. They have all dutifully sat through every one of my hours-long confirmation hearings! I believe it is important to explore different fields and issues, both in our professional and personal lives. For example, I took 5 years off from work to focus on my children and to train in Japanese martial arts. I finally earned a black belt, Shodan level in Japanese, and went on to volunteer as a martial arts instructor to high school girls in Queens and Harlem, NY. That was an experience I will never duplicate! Taking that time to do something completely new and challenging only made me a stronger leader when I returned to Government. My children appreciated the time I devoted to them, and I developed new skills—through very old teachings—that helped me refocus at work. I even made my three kids come to class with me for a few years, and my oldest daughter recently earned her black belt after nearly a decade of training. It's an activity and accomplishment we love to share.
Parker: What challenges have you faced in your career?
What are some lessons you've learned from these challenges?
Nason: The challenging times are when we all truly develop our skills as leaders and mentors. It's easy to manage a team when everything is moving along smoothly and the coffers are full. It is during the challenging moments that we develop patience and get to practice kindness toward our colleagues. That's when we learn what kind of leader—and person—we really are. I love the challenging days; even in the darkest of times I knew I had great people in the foxhole with me.
I also know we need support from family to get through the tough times. During the Government response to Hurricane Katrina, when I was serving as Assistant Secretary for Government Affairs at USDOT, I relied on the support of my mother-in-law to care for my 4-year-old and 11-month-old daughters. I basically lived at the office. I cannot stress enough how critical it is to have the strong support of family.
Parker: How have mentors helped you navigate your career?
What lessons have you learned from your mentors?
Nason: I've been fortunate throughout my life to have many people help shape my career. My father, a highway patrol officer who worked his way up to chief of police, taught me the value of road safety from an early age—it was his personal obsession. Former Congressman Henry Hyde gave me my first job on Capitol Hill. And I remain grateful to former Transportation Secretaries Norm Mineta and Mary Peters, who both supported and guided me at a time when I was young and didn't have a lot of experience. Now, being back at the Department more than 10 years later, I am privileged to work for an experienced executive like Secretary Chao who has taught me how important it is to surround yourself with good people. She always says that personnel is policy. Public service is one of the great privileges of my life, and I'm grateful to all the leaders who have given me the opportunity to serve.
Parker: What are your goals for FHWA?
What direction do you see us heading in?
Nason: The first priority, of course, is to do everything we can to ensure America's roads, bridges, and tunnels are safe for the public. We also want to find new ways of reducing the Federal burden on States and cities who wish to improve their infrastructure, but roadway safety is always the top priority. I am especially focused on addressing pedestrian and bicycle safety issues. When I testified before Congress for my confirmation, I made it very clear that pedestrian safety is an area of special interest for me. Pedestrians are among the most vulnerable road users, and pedestrian fatalities today are at the highest level since 1990. In an effort to address this issue, Secretary Chao and I will be convening a Pedestrian Safety Summit this year in Washington, DC, where we will bring together stakeholders and USDOT leaders to finalize a National Action Plan on Pedestrian Safety. This is a problem we must take immediate action in addressing. I look forward to working with our many partners to find and implement joint solutions to protect our most vulnerable road users.
Parker: What do you think FHWA and the Department are doing right when it comes to safety, and what can we improve upon?
Nason: Under Secretary Chao's leadership, the Department's number one priority is always safety. We are all working closely with our State and industry partners to reduce America's roadway fatality problem, and harmonizing so many different interests on a single goal like that is absolutely a success. In only 2 years, the number of fatalities on America's highways has fallen—and we want that to continue. We have a long way to go, but we are heading in the right direction. With our Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development (BUILD) Grant program, we are making it easier for States to get the funds they need to make investments in key transportation projects. With our Rural Opportunities to Use Transportation for Economic Success (ROUTES) Initiative, we are targeting the needs of rural communities and their transportation networks, which face significant challenges. Though only one-fifth of Americans live in rural areas, almost half of all road fatalities occur in rural areas. Rural America has been overlooked long enough, and we believe our work will make a big difference there.
Parker: What advice would you offer a young woman interested in pursuing a career in transportation?
What benefits do you think women can bring to transportation?
Nason: The world of transportation is so diverse that there is always room for someone with talent. For the traditional methods of road design and construction, female civil engineers are in short supply. We will also need women to help us with coding, computer engineering, and designing the software needed to make America's road system ready for autonomous vehicles. From financial analysts and attorneys to environmental planners and communications or marketing experts, there is a world of opportunity for women within the transportation industry. Women bring the same qualities to transportation that men do, but from a different perspective. Whether it be improvements to project delivery, areas where red tape can be cut or reduced, innovations in technology, or funding, many perspectives enrich the decision-making process.
With Secretary Chao, USDOT now has its third woman leader. There is a woman leading the Federal Transit Administration, we have TWO women leading FHWA, and 13 women are leading State departments of transportation. That is the most ever. Until now, the most women directors of State departments of transportation at one time was six. Progress is happening. There are hundreds of women working within FHWA who help to keep America moving and safe, and I look forward to working hard to increase that number within FHWA and all of USDOT.